U.S. stocks closed narrowly mixed Thursday, the final trading day of the quarter, ahead of the monthly employment report due Friday.
The Dow Jones industrial average and S&P 500 posted two straight quarters of gains with a first-quarter rise of 1.49 percent and 0.77 percent, respectively. (Tweet This)
The Nasdaq composite had its worst first quarter since 2009 with a 2.75 percent quarterly decline. All three major averages recovered from an intra-quarter drop of more than 10 percent.
"I think it's a combination of dovishness out of the Fed and ... no sign of a U.S. recession," said Ben Pace, chief investment officer at HPM Partners.
Materials ended almost 0.9 percent lower to lead nearly all S&P 500 sectors lower. Only utilities gained on the day.
Morgan Stanley on Thursday raised its price target on IBM to $168 from $140 based on the perspective the firm is "beginning to show a path toward revenue monetization" in its Watson data analytics service. Shares of IBM closed 2 percent higher.
"Market's not really moving at all. A real big (point) of news is going to be the jobs report tomorrow so people will be waiting on that," said David Kelly, chief global strategist at JPMorgan Funds. "Markets are adapting themselves to (Fed Chair) Janet Yellen's speech two days ago but I think that adaptation is over."
"It was most pronounced in the dollar," he said.
The U.S. dollar index briefly declined more than 0.4 percent in morning trade to hit its lowest since October. The index closed off session lows but still 4.1 percent lower for the quarter, its worst since 2010.
The euro touched its highest against the dollar since October and held near $1.14. The yen was near 112.54 yen against the greenback.
The iShares MSCI Emerging Markets ETF (EEM) closed a touch lower on the day but held gains of 6.4 percent for the quarter, its best since 2012.
"You're back to a scenario where data points that are not expected can cause some volatility and some downside," said Jonathan Lamensdorf, managing director and portfolio manager at Highland Capital Management.
"It could happen with employment coming in not as expected or China PMI," he said, noting he does not think a pullback in stocks would be a severe as the one earlier this year.
The March nonfarm payrolls report and ISM manufacturing data are both due Friday morning. China's Caixin general manufacturing PMI is also scheduled for release ahead of Friday's trading session.
Joe Quinlan, head of market and thematic strategy at U.S. Trust, said he is watching for "confirmation of continued improvement in the labor market" and gains in wages.
U.S. crude oil futures came off highs but still eked out a gain, up 2 cents at $38.34 a barrel. WTI gained 3.5 percent for the quarter for its first positive quarter in the last three.
While many call the correction in stocks earlier this year a "sell-off" followed by a "rebound," Scott Clemons, chief investment strategist at Brown Brothers Harriman, said, "I've characterized it as all heightened volatility."
To him, the main focus for stocks are indications on earnings growth from the first quarter reporting season beginning in the next few weeks. Until then, "sessions like today just seem to be a wait-and-see mentality," he said.
In economic news, initial jobless claims came in at 276,000. Chicago PMI rose to 53.6 in March from 47.6 in February.
Treasury yields fell to fresh multi-week lows, with the hitting 0.729, its lowest since February, while the 10-year yield touched 1.777, its lowest since the beginning of March.
"It's tough for them to go much lower. If the Fed were to be even more dovish this whole year, the stock market would rise and that would in itself cause yields to rise," said Bryce Doty, senior fixed income manager with Sit Investment Associates. He also noted signs of rising inflation as keeping a floor under yields.
"In order to get yields to go much lower you need a shock," he said.
Earlier on Thursday, Chicago Fed President Charles Evans said in a Reuters report the economic environment supports two rate hikes this year, one around the middle of the year and one at the end of the year. He added the Fed could move earlier or later.
Evans also said U.S. job growth of around 200,000 would be "very good," Reuters reported.
New York Fed President William Dudley is due to speak on lessons from the financial crisis at 5 p.m. ET,
The Dow gained 1.49 percent for the quarter, with Verizon Communications the top performer and Goldman Sachs the worst.
The closed down 4.21 points, or 0.20 percent, at 2,059.74, with materials leading nine sectors lower and utilities the only advancer.
The S&P rose 0.77 percent for the quarter, with telecommunications the top gainer and health and financials the only decliners on the quarter.
The Nasdaq composite closed up 0.55 points, or 0.01 percent, at 4,869.85.
The index declined 2.75 percent for the quarter, with IBB plunging 22.91 percent and Apple gaining 3.54 percent for the quarter.
The Dow transports gained 5.8 percent for the quarter, while the Russell 2000 posted a 1.9 percent decline for the quarter.
The CBOE Volatility Index (VIX), widely considered the best gauge of fear in the market, held near 14.
About eight stocks advanced for every seven decliners on the New York Stock Exchange, with an exchange volume of 980 million and a composite volume of nearly 3.7 billion in the close.
Gold futures for June delivery settled up $7 at $1,235.60 an ounce.
On tap this week:
5 p.m.: New York Fed President William Dudley
March vehicle sales
8:30 a.m.: Employment report
9:45 a.m.: Manufacturing PMI
10 a.m.: ISM manufacturing
10 a.m.: Construction spending
10 a.m.: Consumer sentiment
1 p.m.: Cleveland Fed President Loretta Mester
*Planner subject to change.
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