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Stocks lift off into December with a tailwind and a bit more optimism about the economy.
December is usually a decent month for stocks, which are often buffeted by a Santa rally. But the market's gains are usually back-loaded in December, with the first two weeks flattish on average.
Stocks turned in a lackluster and mixed performance Wednesday, but ended the month of November with solid gains in a postelection Trump rally. The Dow was up 2 points Wednesday at 19,123, giving it a 5.3 percent gain in November, its best month since March. The S&P 500 slipped 5 to 2,198, but was up 3.4 percent for the month. The Russell 2000 was lower for a third day, with a loss of 0.4 percent to 1,322, still with an 11 percent gain for November.
"Three out of every four Decembers are positive, and they have a gain of 1.7 percent," said Sam Stovall, chief investment strategist with CFRA. Since World War II, he said the first half of December has seen an average gain of just 0.1 percent in the S&P 500. But this year, the market has already seen a surge on the Trump trade.
"Is Trump stealing from Santa?" Stovall said. He said historically the S&P has risen into the end of the year after an election, and it could continue to rise but some of the areas that outperformed could see more profit-taking, like small caps. Small caps, financial and stocks that would benefit from fiscal stimulus have all moved higher since President-elect Donald Trump's victory Nov. 8.
Treasury yields were higher Wednesday, and strategists said that was mostly due to a 9 percent surge in oil prices, after OPEC agreed to a production cut. Economic data was also a factor, as personal income rose 0.6 percent to a seven-month high, and ADP data showed employers picked up the pace of hiring. Private sector payrolls increased to 216,000, better than the 165,000 expected, though October was revised lower.
But the Trump trade was also a factor, with market moves linked to comments on CNBC from Steven Mnuchin, who Trump named as Treasury secretary Wednesday. "In order, it's oil, then better ADP," said John Briggs, head of stratey at RBS. Then "his comment about extending the maturity of the debt."
The 10-year yield was at 2.38 percent late in the day.
Mnuchin told CNBC he belives interest rates are going to stay low for the next couple of years. "We're in a period of low interest rates. I think we'll stay there. They've come up a little bit, which I think makes sense," he said, adding that he will be looking at all sorts of opportunities while at Treasury.
"We'll look at potentially extending the maturity of the debt because eventually we are going to have higher interest rates," he said in an interview on CNBC's "Squawk Box."
Mnuchin and investor Wilbur Ross, named Commerce secretary, also discussed their hopes for economic growth of 3 to 4 percent.
MUFG chief financial economist Chris Rupkey said the economy has already been picking up, and this week's data confirmed it.
"It's building. It was building before Trump won. That's the odd thing that can't be reconciled. All the uncertainty factors, the presidential election has been on peoples' radar as a risk for the economy since spring and instead the economy's got a lot of momentum behind it, including big increases in personal income and wage and salary income," Rupkey said.
"Maybe this is what the economy looks like at full employment and we didn't know it. The amazing thing to me is Trump is trying to stimulate the economy and we're at full employment. Nobody has ever tried to stimulate the economy with employment rate this low," he said.
Unemployment was at 4.9 percent in October and it is expected to stay the same for November, when the employment report is released Friday.
Thursday's data includes weekly claims at 8:30 a.m. ET, manufacturing PMI at 9:45 a.m., ISM manufacturing data at 10 a.m. and construction spending, also at 10 a.m. November vehicle sales are also expected to be released by auto makers.
"It's certainly better. Consumer confidence was quite high. It's back to where it was in 2007, before the crash of the recession. I'm a little surprised that [people thought] Trump was going to bankrupt the nation with his tax cut and call a halt to America's trade with the rest of the world and cause another recession, and now we're on to 3 to 4 percent growth. It's funny how all the naysayers have kind of disappeared," said Rupkey.
Earnings are expected from Toronto-Dominion Bank, Canadian Imperial Bank, Dollar General, Donaldson, Kroger, Express and Lands' End before the bell. Ulta Salon, Workday, Ascena Retail, Five Below, Smith & Wesson and Ambarella report after the market close.
Fed speakers include Cleveland Fed President Loretta Mester at 8:30 a.m. ET and Dallas Fed President Rob Kaplan at 9 a.m.