US stocks on a cautious climb


By VIVIAN CHU

NEW YORK: US stocks advanced in a quiet session on Friday, helped by stabilising oil prices, but caution before a batch of key economic reports next week and a Federal Reserve meeting at month’s end kept a lid on gains. 

Alcoa Inc, the world’s biggest aluminium producer, led the blue-chip Dow’s percentage gainers. 

Analysts said that weakness in the dollar, following a report showing the US current account gap widened more than forecast, boosted shares of Alcoa and other cyclical stocks. 

Blackboard Inc topped percentage gainers on the Nasdaq in its first day of trading, a day after its initial public offering was priced. 

Shares of Blackboard, an educational software company, at one point jumped more than 60% – the best debut by a technology company since December 2003. 

The expiration of various derivatives contracts also helped gains, traders said. 

Friday marked the expiration of four different types of options and futures, an event that occurs once a quarter and can cause volatility in trading. 

The Dow Jones industrial average ended up 38.89 points, or 0.37%, at 10,416.41, while the broader Standard & Poor’s 500 Index added 2.95 points, or 0.26%, to 1,135.00. The Nasdaq Composite Index edged up 3.06 points, or 0.15%, to 1,986.73. 

Still, trading floors were quiet, with many investors reluctant to buy stocks ahead of the weekend, traders said. 

Many investors are also waiting for data next week on durable goods orders, new home sales and other economic indicators for clues about the size of a widely expected interest rate hike at the Fed’s policy meeting on June 29 to June 30. 

“Oil prices are higher, but I wouldn’t say there’s any big catalyst today,” said Neil Massa, an equity trader at John Hancock Advisors in Boston. 

“Everyone's focused on the end of the month with the Iraqi handover and the Fed meeting, and no one's taking a stand one way or another before then.” 

News that al-Qaeda militants beheaded a US engineer, held hostage since last week after the Saudi government failed to meet its demands to release jailed militants, did not sway markets, traders said. 

“It's horrible news, but the market hasn't given up any of its recent gains. It's been very narrow. It hasn't had any impact on the market,” said Michael O'Hare, head of block trading at Lehman Brothers. 

For the week, the Dow edged up 0.06%, its fourth straight up week, while the S&P 500 dipped 0.13% and the Nasdaq fell 0.66%. 

Trading was active, with 1.5 billion shares changing hands on the New York Stock Exchange, above the 1.4 billion daily average for last year. About 1.69 billion shares were traded on Nasdaq, matching last year's daily average. 

On the economics front, the government said the US current account deficit widened more than expected in the first three months this year to a new record of US$144.9bil, pushed by the growing gap between imports and exports. The dollar fell against rival currencies after the report. 

On the New York Stock Exchange, Alcoa's stock jumped US$1.23, or 3.93%, to US$32.53, lifting the Dow. 

Viacom Inc shares rose, after the media company disclosed terms of the anticipated split-off of its Blockbuster Inc movie rental business, a move that is expected to generate US$738mil in cash. 

Viacom shares rose 37 cents, or 1%, to US$37.03, while those of Blockbuster shed 17 cents, or 1.1%, to US$15.22. 

General Electric Co shares also rose, on news that GE and InVision Technologies Inc tentatively agreed to settle lawsuits related to GE’s proposed acquisition of InVision, a security technology company. 

Two lawsuits related to the deal have been consolidated under one lead case, and if the court approves the settlement, the lawsuits will be dismissed, InVision said. – Reuters  

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