U.S. stocks nudged modestly higher on Thursday, pushing the Dow Jones industrial average to its third straight record-high close. But Canadian stocks ended the day lower.
The Dow closed at 14,329.49, up 33.25 points or 0.2 per cent. The broader S&P 500 closed at 1544.26, up 2.80 points or 0.2 per cent – putting it within 1.4 per cent of its own record high. In Canada, the S&P/TSX composite index closed at 12,826.52, down 5.44 points or 0.04 per cent.
The U.S. gains followed an upbeat reading on U.S. initial jobless claims for the period ended last week. Claims fell to 340,000, slightly better than what economists had been expecting. The Labor Department releases its official U.S. payroll numbers Friday morning, which are expected to rise 165,000.
In other data, U.S. household wealth rose 1.8 per cent in the fourth quarter over the previous three months, marking its highest level in five years, due to rising home values and investment portfolios.
In Europe, the European Central Bank held its key interest rate at 0.75 per cent for the eighth straight month, even as it lowered its growth outlook for 2013. The ECB now believes the economy will contract 0.5 per cent, down from a previous estimate for a 0.3 per cent contraction. It also took a different approach to monetary policy, saying that policy will remain "accommodative as long as needed."
U.S. banks were particularly strong, with Bank of America Corp. up 3 per cent and JPMorgan Chase & Co. up 1.2 per cent.
The shares rose ahead of the release of stress tests from the Federal Reserve, designed to measure the banks' ability to withstand certain financial pressures. The results showed that 17 of 18 of the largest financial firms could withstand a severe recession – Ally Financial Inc. being the exception. U.S. banks are expected to make announcements next week about their dividend plans, based partly on the stress test results.
Boeing Co. rose 2.5 per cent, touching a new 52-week high, even as U.S. investigators remain puzzled by the battery fires that ultimately grounded the global fleet of 787 Dreamliners.
Among key commodities, crude oil rose to $91.56 (U.S.) a barrel, up $1.13. Gold rose to $1575.10 an ounce, up 20 cents. Suncor Energy Inc. rose 0.5 per cent and Barrick Gold Corp. fell 2.3 per cent.
Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. rose 3 per cent after it reported net earnings of $352-million (Canadian) or 32 cents a share, down from 76 cents a share last year. On an adjusted basis, earnings also missed analysts' expectations, yet the energy company boosted its dividend and said it was open to a joint venture deal for its shale holdings in British Columbia.