New York With unemployment still rising, investors are questioning whether stocks should be, too.
Stocks ended a volatile day Friday little changed after the government reported a spike in the unemployment rate to 9.4 percent in May, the highest level in more than 25 years, even as the pace of layoffs eased more than expected.
The Dow Jones industrial average finished up almost 13 points at 8,763.13, just 14 points below where it started the year. The index had advanced as much as 89 points and moved in and out of positive territory for 2009 during the day, but the jump in the unemployment rate proved to be too tough to ignore.
“When nearly 10 percent of people are out of work, it’s hard for me to say things are so positive,” said Anthony Conroy, head trader for BNY ConvergEx Group.
Bond prices tumbled again, sending long-term yields to their highest levels this year. Those yields are closely tied to interest rates on mortgages and other kinds of consumer loans.
Investors track unemployment closely since jobless people are far more likely to default on their debts and slash their spending, potentially exacerbating two of the most troubled spots in the economy right now: Consumer spending and the ailing financial industry.
Despite the troubling jobs data, the Dow and other major stock indexes finished the week higher. Although the Dow is still 38.1 percent below its October 2007 high, it has charged ahead 33.9 percent since hitting a 12-year low in early March.
“The markets are feeling better even though the economy is still sick,” Conroy said.
The Dow rose 12.89, or 0.2 percent, to 8,763.13. The Standard & Poor’s 500 index fell 2.37, or 0.3 percent, to 940.09, and the Nasdaq composite index fell 0.60, or less than 0.1 percent, to 1,849.42.
The Dow is up 3 percent for the week, while the S&P 500 is up 2 percent and the Nasdaq is up 3.7 percent. It was the major indexes’ third straight week of gains.
The Labor Department said employers cut 345,000 jobs in May, far less than the 520,000 economists predicted, a hopeful sign for the job market. But the report also showed that the unemployment rate surged to 9.4 percent from 8.9 percent in April, suggesting that companies are still reluctant to hire.
The jobless rate is considered a “lagging” indicator, meaning that it usually recovers after the rest of the economy does. But economists expect the rate to keep rising.
“That is difficult to get comfortable with,” said Richard Hughes, co-president of Portfolio Management Consultants.
May’s job losses, the fewest since September, appeared too good to be true to some investors. Speculation swept the trading floors Friday morning that the government had misreported the job cut figure, sending stocks lower in midmorning trading before the Labor Department shot down the rumor.
“There is pretty good evidence that the recession is bottoming,” said Doug Roberts, chief investment strategist of ChannelCapitalResearch.com. “The real question is the type of recovery. Just because we’re reaching a bottom doesn’t mean a bounce is imminent.”
Next week, investors will decide whether to extend the market’s advance or cash in profits as they confront data from the Federal Reserve on regional economies; a report on retail sales from the Commerce Department; and a reading on consumer sentiment from the University of Michigan.