NEW YORK — The Standard & Poor’s 500 index edged toward another record high close today as good news from J.C. Penney helped offset disappointing earnings from U.S. companies.
J.C. Penney was the biggest gainer in the S&P 500 after its CEO said sales are improving. Merck fell after the drugmaker sharply lowered its earnings forecast for the year and reported a plunge in third-quarter earnings. Roper Industries, a medical and industrial equipment manufacturer, dropped after lowering its full-year earnings estimate.
The S&P 500 has gained for three straight weeks as U.S. lawmakers moved to end a partial government shutdown and prevent a potential default. Stocks have surged this year because companies have been able to keep increasing their earnings even as the economy failed to escape stall speed.
Third-quarter earnings are expected to rise by about 4.5 percent at S&P 500 companies, according to data from S&P Capital IQ. While that is the slowest rate of growth in a year, companies are still beating the estimates of Wall Street analysts. About two-thirds of the companies that have published third-quarter earnings so far have exceeded analysts’ expectations.
“Earnings are beating a low bar,” said Russ Koesterich, chief investment strategist at Blackrock. “You have an economy that’s not producing a lot of top-line growth, but it’s allowing margins to remain elevated for longer than people thought.”
The S&P 500 rose three points, or 0.2 percent, to 1,763 as of 2:15 p.m. Eastern time. The Dow Jones industrial average edged up twenty points, or 0.1 percent, to 15,591. The Nasdaq composite was down less than a point at 3,943.
J.C. Penney, which is trying to recover from a botched corporate makeover led by its former CEO, rose 62 cents, or 9.1 percent, to $7.41. The stock is still down 62 percent this year.
Merck fell $1.23, or 2.6 percent, to $45.35 after reporting that its third-quarter profit plunged 35 percent. Roper Industries fell $7.09, or 5.3 percent, to $125.95 after the company’s earnings fell short of estimates. Roper also cut its earnings forecast.
Homebuilders fell after the number of Americans who signed contracts to buy previously occupied homes fell in September to the lowest level in nine months, reflecting higher mortgage rates and home prices. D.R. Horton dropped 19 cents, or 1.1 percent, to $19.57. KB Home fell 26 cents, or 1.5 percent, to $17.64.
Stocks have been supported this year by ongoing economic stimulus from the Federal Reserve. This week investors will get more insight into the central bank’s thinking.
Fed policy makers meet this week, though few are expecting any change in policy. The Fed is currently buying $85 billion in bonds every month to help keep down long-term interest rates and to encourage borrowing, spending and hiring.
The 16-day government shutdown that ended earlier this month likely curtailed economic growth in the fourth quarter. Also, many government agencies stopped publishing economic reports during the shutdown, making it harder for policy makers to get a clear picture of the economy.
The yield on the 10-year Treasury note was unchanged at 2.51 percent.
In commodities trading, the price of gold edged down 30 cents to close at $1,352.20 an ounce. Oil rose 79 cents, or 0.8 percent, to $98.64 a barrel.
Among other stocks making big moves:
— Burger King rose 88 cents, or 4.5 percent, to $20.64 after the hamburger chain said its third-quarter net income surged as it sharply reduced its expenses.
— CF Industries rose $9.64, or 4.6 percent, to $219.26 after the company agreed to sell its phosphate business to Mosaic.
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