U.S. stocks edged slightly higher Thursday as investors tried to gauge the prospects of Washington passing an additional stimulus package to bolster the economy before next month’s election.

The S&P 500 rose 17.80 points, or 0.5%, to 3380.80, following its best six-month performance since 2009. Despite a decline in September, the benchmark is up more than 35% over the past six months. The Dow Jones Industrial Average rose 35.20 points, 0.1%, to 27816.90. Both indexes pared earlier gains.

The technology heavy Nasdaq Composite advanced 159 points, or 1.4%, to 11326.51.

“The market is grappling with which way to go given how important fiscal stimulus is to the sustainability of the economic recovery,” said Mark Luschini, chief investment strategist at Janney Montgomery Scott.

A renewed burst of optimism this week—prompted by talks between Republican and Democratic leaders—began to fade Wednesday after the House postponed a vote on a $2.2 trillion package. Democrats are trying to find common ground with the White House on a bipartisan agreement, though they remain far apart on key issues.

“The big wild card in the U.S. is whether we get more fiscal spending or not,” said Gregory Perdon, co-chief investment officer at private bank Arbuthnot Latham. “The political backdrop is just so toxic.”

The prospects of a deal between lawmakers and the Trump administration on Thursday afternoon remained dim.

The lead-up to the presidential election—and the prospect of a contested outcome—is keeping a lid on the rally and creating turbulence in markets, traders said.

“It’s a lot of maybe and maybe not,” said Kathryn Kaminski, chief research strategist at AlphaSimplex Group. “We have a positive view on U.S. stocks, but are still skeptical.”

Investors are also still assessing the course of the coronavirus. Infection rates in the U.S. have remained elevated for some months, and health experts have warned that the colder months may bring a new wave of cases.

Although investors don’t expect to see a repeat of the spring’s stringent lockdowns, fresh restrictions could threaten recovery in the labor market and weigh on consumer spending, which accounts for more than two-thirds of the U.S. economy.

About 837,000 Americans applied for new unemployment benefits through the week ended Sept. 26, down from 873,000 the week before. The data signal an improving labor market, though unemployment remains high.

Activity in the U.S. manufacturing sector kept growing in September, albeit at a slightly slower speed than that of August, data from a survey compiled by the Institute for Supply Management showed Thursday.

New figures from the Commerce Department show U.S. consumer spending rose 1% in August while incomes fell, in part because of a decline in government aid for unemployed workers.

Some believe central bank stimulus measures will keep markets buoyant.

“If you look at the market, it’s telling you that we’re going to get a recovery next year. I’m convinced we’re in a new bull market,” said Patrick Spencer, managing director at U.S. investment firm Baird. “Even with the election, behind all that is central banks and liquidity.”

The Nasdaq Composite hit a string of records in the third quarter as investors poured money into technology companies.


Victor J. Blue/Bloomberg News

The Nasdaq Composite’s stronger performance than other major indexes show that technology has been a major recipient of what has ultimately been an uneven rally, investors said.

Within the S&P 500, the energy sector was by far the weakest performer Thursday, falling 3.1%.

“There still has not been a dramatic amount of broad-based support, especially in energy and financials,” said Jeremy Bryan, portfolio manager at Gradient Investments. “Those are the poster children of continued underperformance.”

Financial stocks rose 0.2% in the S&P 500 Thursday, but the sector has dropped 22% this year. Only the energy group, with 52% decline, has fared worse.

In corporate news, shares of


rose $2.60, or 1.6%, to $167.86 after the plane maker got a tentative personal endorsement for fixes to its beleaguered 737 MAX from the head of the Federal Aviation Administration. Shares in


gained $2.20, or 1.59%, to $140.80, after the drinks and snacks company beat earnings estimates.

In bond markets, the yield on the benchmark 10-year Treasury settled at 0.677% Thursday, unchanged from Wednesday.

In currency markets, investors’ continued expectations of Fed stimulus, as well as heightened appetite for risk-taking outside the U.S., has contributed to the weakening of the dollar. The WSJ Dollar Index, which tracks the greenback against a basket of other major currencies, fell 0.1%.

Overseas, the pan-continental Stoxx Europe 600 rose 0.2%. In Asia, the Tokyo Stock Exchange halted all stock trading for Thursday due to a system problem and said it expects to resume normal trading Friday. Markets in China, Hong Kong and South Korea were closed for a holiday.

Economists have long used letters of the alphabet like V and U to describe economic recoveries. But the coronavirus downturn is so different from past recessions that economists are coming up with new shapes to describe the potential recovery. WSJ explains. Illustration: Jacob Reynolds

Corrections & Amplifications
The yield on 10-year Treasurys ended Wednesday at 0.677%. An earlier version of this article incorrectly said the yield was 0.677% on Tuesday. (Corrected on Oct. 1)

Write to Caitlin Ostroff at [email protected] and Dawn Lim at [email protected]

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