Stocks squeeze out gains; telecoms lead

U.S. stocks closed slightly higher in low volume trade Monday, steadying after five straight weeks of gains, with telecommunications and health care stocks leading.

"I think investors get the sense, even with disappointing news, the general trend is up," said Bruce McCain, chief investment strategist at Key Private Bank.

As of the close, trade volume was on track for the lowest of the year so far.

U.S. crude oil futures for April delivery settled up 47 cents, or 1.19 percent, at $39.91 a barrel. After the settle, the contract rolled to May, which ended up 38 cents at $41.52 a barrel.

Treasury yields rose, with the 2-year yield near 0.87 percent and the 10-year yield around 1.92 percent.

Telecommunications and health care led S&P 500 advancers, while materials and energy lagged. Boeing and Nike were the top contributors to gains on the Dow Jones industrial average, while Chevron, Goldman Sachs and Walt Disney were the greatest contributors to declines.

The Nasdaq composite outperformed slightly as Gilead Sciences and Microsoft gained. The iShares Nasdaq Biotechnology ETF (IBB) closed about 2 percent higher. Apple gained more than half a percent before erasing gains to end a touch lower after its product event, at which it unveiled a 4-inch iPhone.

Valeant Pharmaceuticals closed 7.4 percent higher, well off session highs touched after the firm announced that CEO Mike Pearson is leaving. The stock is still down more than 70 percent year-to-date.

Citigroup closed 0.14 percent higher after earlier rising more than 1 percent. KBW said in a Sunday note the firm "could be one of the only U.S. (global systematically important banks) that could successfully split up," a move that "should unlock meaningful shareholder value—50+% returns versus the current market capitalization."

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In economic news, existing home sales declined 7.1 percent in February to an annual rate of 5.08 million units, the lowest level since November, Reuters said.

The SPDR S&P Homebuilders ETF (XHB) closed down 0.6 percent.

John Lonski, chief economist at Moody's, said the latest housing data indicated the U.S. economy would continue to grow at a moderate pace.

"The warning is the U.S. economy is not as strong as recent growth in non-farm payrolls would indicate. There's no question about that," he said.

Following the worse-than-expected home sales data, Goldman Sachs lowered its first quarter GDP tracking estimate by one tenth to 2.3 percent, according to a note from Goldman's Elad Pashtan.

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Ahead of the opening bell, the Chicago Fed national activity index posted a decline to minus 0.29 in February from 0.41 in January.

Early Monday morning, Richmond Fed President Jeffrey Lacker said U.S. inflation will likely accelerate in the coming years and move toward the Fed's 2 percent target, according to Reuters.

Atlanta Fed President Dennis Lockhart said in a speech that a rate hike could come as early as next month. A non-voting member of the Fed's policymaking committee, Lockhart also said he expects continued job market improvement this year.

Separately, San Francisco Fed President John Williams said in a Friday interview with Market News International that if the data "continues the way I hope and expect, then April or June would definitely be potential times to have an increase in interest rates."

St. Louis Fed President James Bullard is due to speak on economic inequality in the evening.

Markets are closed Friday for Good Friday.

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The U.S. dollar index traded slightly higher, with the euro near $1.125 and the yen at 111.89 yen against the greenback.

European stocks closed lower amid recovery in oil prices from session lows.

In Asia, the Shanghai composite surged more than 2 percent. State-backed China Securities Finance, which lends brokerages money to fund margin financing, said late Friday it would resume some short-term lending businesses and cut borrowing costs for brokerages, Reuters reported.

U.S. stocks posted five straight weeks of gains on Friday, with the Dow Jones industrial average and S&P 500 recovering from a 10 percent correction earlier in the quarter to close higher year-to-date.

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The Dow Jones industrial average closed up 21.57 points, or 0.12 percent, at 17,623.87, with Nike leading advancers and Chevron the greatest decliner.

The S&P 500 closed up 2.02 points, or 0.10 percent, at 2,051.60, with telecommunications leading six sectors higher and materials the greatest laggard.

The Nasdaq composite closed up 13.23 points, or 0.28 percent, at 4,808.87.

The CBOE Volatility Index (VIX), widely considered the best gauge of fear in the market, held near 14.

Advancers were a touch ahead of decliners on the New York Stock Exchange, with an exchange volume of 836 million and a composite volume of roughly 3.3 billion in the close.

Gold futures settled down $10.10 at $1,244.20 an ounce.

Reuters contributed to this report.

On tap this week:

Monday

8:30 p.m.: St. Louis Fed President James Bullard speaks on economic inequality

Tuesday

Earnings: Nike, Cintas, Red Hat, Five Below, Krispy Kreme

9 a.m.: FHFA Home Price Index

9:45 a.m.: Markit flash U.S. manufacturing PMI

10 a.m.: Richmond Fed manufacturing index

1:30 p.m.: Chicago Fed President Charles Evans speaks on economic conditions and monetary policy

6:30 p.m.: Philadelphia Fed President Patrick Harker speaks on growth and the role of economic policies

Wednesday

Earnings: General Mills, PVH, Eldorado Gold, Oxford Industries, KB Home

7 a.m.: Mortgage applications

10 a.m.: New home sales

10:30 a.m.: Oil inventories

5:30 p.m.: Philadelphia Fed President Patrick Harker gives welcoming remarks at a book launch

Thursday

Earnings: Accenture, Winnebago, GameStop

8:15 a.m.: St. Louis Fed President James Bullard speaks on the U.S. economy and monetary policy

8:30 a.m.: Durable goods

8:30 a.m.: Jobless claims

9:45 a.m.: Markit flash US services PMI

10:30 a.m.: Natural gas inventories

11 a.m.: Kansas City Fed survey

1 p.m.: Oil rig count

Friday

Markets closed for Good Friday

8:30 a.m.: 4th quarter GDP (third estimate)

8:30 a.m.: Corporate profits

*Planner subject to change.

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