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Stocks finished mixed on Thursday, amid some churn around the unchanged line, as President Trump finally unveiled the steel and aluminum tariffs that were hinted at last week. They were largely as expected: 25% on steel and 10% on aluminum, with carve outs for Mexico and Canada, while NAFTA negotiations continue.
He also repeated the threat of reciprocal tariffs on China, who he is determined to reduce America's trade deficit with. Investors largely took the news in stride, ostensibly on the hope this is an opening gambit of wider negotiations on trade. But in their excitement to move past this issue, investors seem to have forgotten about Friday's non-farm payroll report.
Further indications of a tightening labor market (which sunk stocks in February) will bring back all those bad feelings about higher wages, higher inflation and thus higher interest rates from the Federal Reserve.
In the end, the Dow Jones Industrial Average gained 0.4%, the S&P 500 gained 0.5%, the Nasdaq Composite gained 0.4% and the Russell 2000 lost 0.2%. Crude oil and gold declined. The dollar climbed. And Treasury bonds moved higher, pushing down yields.
Advancers edged out decliners on the NYSE, with 103 new highs vs. 40 new lows. Among the most active issues, grocer Kroger Co (NYSE: KR ) lost 12.3% after reporting in-line earnings and revenues capped by in-line guidance amid ongoing pressure from Amazon.com, Inc. (NASDAQ: AMZN ).
10 of 11 sectors finished in the green, with defensive groups like healthcare, consumer staples and utilities leading the way. Express Scripts Holding Company (NASDAQ: ESRX ) gained 8.6% after agreeing to be acquired by Cigna Corporation (NYSE: CI ) in a $67 billion deal. CI shares dropped 11.5% on the news. Costco Wholesale Corporation (NASDAQ: COST ) fell 0.9% after reporting results.
In Europe, the European Central Bank left interest rates unchanged by removing language from its policy statement about potentially needing to expand its bond buying stimulus program.
All eyes now turn to the February jobs report, to be released at 8:30 am.
Economists are looking for the unemployment rate to fall one percentage point to a 4% rate on a payroll gain of 205,000. This would be an extension of January's strong 200,000 print. Such a drop in the jobless rate would bolster the argument that the economy is at full employment and thus, on the verge of a bout of wage-push inflation.
Already, unemployment is below the Fed's current estimate of a "natural" rate of 4.7%.
But wages will be the metric everyone will be watching.
When the January numbers were reported on Feb. 2, the annualized growth rate in average hourly earnings surprised to the upside with a 2.9% result (vs. the 2.6% expected). That was the best wage showing to date in the recovery and marked an acceleration from the upwardly revised 2.7% result for December.
But the analysts believe one-time weather factors in January could result in some giveback in the average hourly earnings measure for February. Capital Economics agrees on this point, but it has penciled in an upside surprise for payrolls - it's looking for 250,000 new jobs. And it notes that "the big picture is that wage growth will trend higher this year."
Anthony Mirhaydari is the founder of theEdge(ETFs) andEdge Pro(Options) investment advisory newsletters.Free two- and four-week trial offers have been extended to InvestorPlace readers.
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