Stocks hold close to records as wait continues for Congress

NEW YORK (AP) — U.S. stock indexes are holding close to their record levels Friday, as a week marked by tentative optimism for the economy’s prospects comes to a close.

The S&P 500 was 0.2% lower in early trading, a day after it and other major indexes returned to record heights. Hope that Congress may be nearing a deal to offer more financial support for the economy has helped put the S&P 500 on track for a 1.4% gain this week, which would more than make up for the prior week’s loss. So has enthusiasm about vaccines for COVID-19, which investors hope will get the economy back on the road to normalcy next year.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average was down 51 points, or 0.2%, at 30,252, as of 9:45 a.m. Eastern time. Like the S&P 500, it was drifting between small gains and losses. The Nasdaq composite was virtually flat.

Much of the market’s focus recently has been on Capitol Hill, where momentum has kicked back up for on-and-off-again talks for financial aid for the economy. Negotiations on nearly $1 trillion in relief had seemed on the brink of success, but talks are likely to continue into the weekend. The package could include benefits for laid-off workers and cash payments sent to most Americans.

Economists and investors say such the need for such action is urgent, as the worsening pandemic tightens its chokehold on the economy again. Reports this week showed that more workers are applying for jobless benefits and that sales for retailers slumped worse last month than economists expected.

The rising coronavirus counts and deaths are pushing governments around the world to bring back varying degrees of restrictions on businesses, and fear is keeping people and companies away from normal economic activity. The economic damage has mounted, meanwhile, the deep partisan divide in Washington has prevented Congress from reaching a deal for months.

Wall Street’s hope is that Congress can approve big stimulus for the economy, which could carry the economy through what’s expected to be a dismal winter, before a round of COVID-19 vaccines can help it begin to stand on its own next year.

The nation’s first coronavirus vaccine just began rolling out this past week, and Vice President Mike Pence got a shot on live television Friday in hopes of assuring Americans that it’s safe. That vaccine was developed by Pfizer and BioNTech. A second vaccine from Moderna and the National Institutes of Health may also be on the brink of regulatory approval after a government advisory panel endorsed it on Thursday.

Of course, it will be months before most people will be able to get access to a vaccine, and the pandemic is likely to do even more damage in the interim.

In the bond market, Treasury yields were holding relatively steady. The yield on the 10-year Treasury ticked up to 0.92% from 0.91% late Thursday.

Earlier this week, the Federal Reserve pledged to keep buying bonds in hopes of supporting the economy until it sees substantial progress made. It also repeated its pledge to keep interest rates at their record low of nearly zero. Such moves have helped underpin the market since the spring, when the Fed stepped forcefully into markets with emergency actions.

Stock markets overseas were also making mostly modestly moves.

In Asia, the Nikkei 225 slipped 0.2% after Japan’s central bank extended an emergency loan program by six months and left monetary policy unchanged, as expected.

South Korea’s Kospi edged up by 0.1%, Hong Kong’s Hang Seng fell 0.7% and stocks in Shanghai slipped 0.3%.

In Europe, the DAX in Frankfurt gained 0.1%, and the CAC 40 in France slipped 0.3%. The FTSE 100 in London rose 0.1%.