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Archive for Saturday, December 27, 2008

Stocks post small but steady gains

December 27, 2008

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— Wall Street put together a moderate advance in light post-Christmas trading Friday, but gains were limited by dreary holiday shopping readings that dimmed the chance of a big year-end rally.

The major indexes finished the week with losses, but the market nonetheless showed further signs of stability.

The news from the retailing sector was far from surprising: Americans spent much less on gifts this season than they did last year, according to SpendingPulse, a division of MasterCard Advisors. Retail sales dropped between 5.5 percent and 8 percent compared with last year, the data showed, or between 2 percent and 4 percent after stripping out auto and gas sales.

Ever since the Thanksgiving weekend, it has been widely expected that this holiday season would be dismal, and analysts believe that a great deal of the poor economic news of late, including weak holiday spending, has been factored into stock prices.

Still, personal consumption is a huge part of U.S. economic activity — comprising more than two-thirds of gross domestic product — so Wall Street remains concerned that a more frugal consumer could keep the economy weak in 2009. The market will be paying close attention to the Conference Board’s December survey on consumer confidence, to be released on Tuesday. The survey will include data on consumers’ expectations for the future.

There was little conviction behind Friday’s advance, which the market managed after stocks meandered for much of the session. With just three full trading days left in the year, no news has been upbeat enough to spark a big year-end rally, a consequence of the great uncertainty still in the market. December is usually a strong month for stocks, and a flurry of trading known as a “Santa Claus rally” is often seen in the final week.

“I think we could have a year-end rally, but it’s got a formidable headwind in the form of tax-selling, in my view,” said Hugh Johnson, chairman and chief investment officer of Johnson Illington Advisors. Tax-loss selling is when investors sell their poorly-performing stocks to realize a loss for the year, which can reduce their taxes in upcoming years.

The Dow Jones industrial average rose 47.07, or 0.56 percent, to 8,515.55 after Thursday’s market holiday.

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