S&P 500 ekes out record close despite Cisco and Walmart losses

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The S&P 500 inched higher on Thursday to a record close, but persisting worries around U.S-China trade relations and declines in Cisco Systems and Walmart tempered the excitement around Wall Street.

The broad index closed just 0.1% higher at 3,096.63 as the real estate and material sectors outperformed. The Dow Jones Industrial Average, however, closed marginally lower at 27,781.96 while the Nasdaq Composite dipped 0.04% to 8,479.02.

Cisco Systems dropped 7.3% on disappointing guidance while Walmart dropped 0.3% after hitting an all-time high.

"The run-up was fueled by signs of a more conciliatory tone around trade," said Keith Buchanan, portfolio manager at GLOBALT. "The news flow over the past week has turned a bit more normal and the market really hasn't come off its highs in any meaningful way."

"We view that as a positive," he said.

Talks between the U.S. and China are thought to have hit a snag over agricultural purchases. The Wall Street Journal reported on Wednesday that Beijing is resisting requests from the White House to curb tech transfers as well as enforcement mechanisms. China is also reportedly wary about committing to specific farm purchases from the U.S.

Chinese Ministry of Commerce spokesman Gao Feng said overnight that both countries are holding "in-depth" discussions about a phase one deal, but noted that the rolling back of some tariffs is key to reaching an agreement.

The news came after President Donald Trump said earlier in the week China and the U.S. were "close" to reaching a deal, but offered no details on how the talks were progressing.

Traders work on the floor at the New York Stock Exchange, October 25, 2019.
Brendan McDermid | Reuters

Sentiment around trade also took a hit after U.S. senators pushed for a vote on a Hong Kong rights bill as protests there escalate. Passage of this bill could hinder trade negotiations. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said  China has lodged "stern representations" with the U.S. on the matter.

Equities have been on a tear lately amid renewed hope that both sides will strike some sort of trade deal. The Dow and S&P 500 are up 3.7% and 4.4%, respectively, over the past month. The Nasdaq Composite is up more than 5% in that time.

"While signs of progress toward a US-China Phase 1 deal are welcome, a number of key points will need to be negotiated, including timing, enforcement and terms," said Mark Haefele, global chief investment officer at UBS Global Wealth Management, in a note.

Washington and Beijing have imposed tariffs on billions of dollars' worth of one another's goods since the start of 2018, battering financial markets and souring business and consumer sentiment.

In corporate news, Walmart reported quarterly earnings that beat analyst expectations, briefly sending its stock to record levels. Cisco, meanwhile, issued weak revenue guidance for its fiscal second quarter, overshadowing stronger-than-forecast quarterly results. 

On the data front, weekly jobless claims reached 225,000 last week, their highest level since June. Meanwhile, U.S. producer prices had their biggest gain in six months in October.

Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell testified before the House Budget Committee on the economic outlook, saying: "There's nothing that's really booming that would want to bust. In other words, it's a pretty sustainable picture."

In prepared remarks on Wednesday, Powell said the path of Fed interest rates is unlikely to change as long as the economy keeps growing.

—CNBC's Sam Meredith contributed to this report.