Stocks Edge Higher as Investors Ponder Tax Bill, Mixed Earnings

The World Series delivered impressive television. The markets also made an impressive showing on Thursday, by rallying from red to green in the final minutes of trading. The Dow Jones Industrial Average and S&P 500 both closed higher. The tech-heavy Nasdaq closed lower on weak operating results from sector bellwethers.

Let me start by congratulating the Houston Astros, who beat the LA Dodgers Wednesday night in Game 7 of the World Series. The Astros won their first championship in franchise history.

Condolences to Los Angeles. I know how it feels; my team the Red Sox were beaten by the Astros in the playoffs.

As with baseball, Wall Street relies on statistics. On Thursday, the economic stats were positive. Investors also were reassured by President Trump’s appointment of Jerome Powell to replace Janet Yellen as Federal Reserve chair. A dove on interest rates, Powell is seen as a safe choice.

However, a batch of weak earnings weighed on the broader indices. The highly anticipated Republican tax bill didn’t inspire investors, either. The markets mostly drifted lower throughout the day, before eking out modest gains.

The House of Representatives on Thursday finally released its proposed tax overhaul. The bill fulfills Trump’s promise of stimulus by chopping the corporate tax rate from 35% to 20%. But the bill also gores several sacred cows, making its passage uncertain.

The bill limits the deduction of mortgage interest for newly purchased homes up to $500,000. In many markets, $500,000 doesn’t get you much of a house. Home builder stocks got pummeled on Thursday. Home builder Toll Brothers (NYSE: TOL) closed the day down 5.92%.

The Republican plan allows state and local property tax deductions of up to $10,000, which would hurt taxpayers in states with high property taxes.

The bill also eliminates the electric vehicle (EV) tax credit. EV maker Tesla (NSDQ: TSLA) fell Thursday by 6.80%.

The proposed bill would eliminate deductions for medical expenses and student loans. The personal exemption also would be eliminated, which could result in higher taxes for families, especially those with several children.

Lobbyists are girding for a donnybrook. At the same time, investors are noticing that the bill’s math doesn’t quite add up.

Let’s first look at the robust economic data.

The U.S. Labor Department reported that the number of Americans filing for unemployment benefits fell to a nearly 45-year low last week. Initial claims for state unemployment benefits decreased 5,000 to a seasonally adjusted 229,000 for the week ended Oct. 28.

The Labor Department also reported on Thursday that U.S. worker productivity in the third quarter increased at its fastest pace in three years. Another positive: The Federal Reserve kept interest rates unchanged on Wednesday.

But the curve balls on Thursday came in the form of lackluster operating results and tax legislation that will be difficult to pass.

Thursday Market Wrap

  • DJIA +0.35% to close at 23,516.26
  • S&P 500 +0.02% to close at 2,579.85
  • Nasdaq -0.02% to close at 6,714.94

Thursday’s Big Gainers

  • Ansys (NSDQ: ANSS) +9.65%

Simulation software maker posts strong 3Q earnings.

  • Becton Dickinson (NYSE: BDX) +7.69%

Medical device maker tops estimates for its fiscal 4Q.

  • Yum! Brands (NYSE: YUM) +6.43%

Fast food chain tops 3Q earnings and revenue estimates.

Thursday’s Big Losers

  • Newell Brands (NYSE: NWL) -26.90%

Consumer goods company misses on 3Q earnings.

  • Flowserve (NYSE: FLS) -10.93%

Maker of fluid control devices narrows 2017 guidance.

  • Symantec (NSDQ: SYMC) -8.64%

Cybersecurity firm’s 3Q earnings and guidance fall short of Wall Street’s expectations.

Letters to the Editor

Your letters arrive to me in the form of emails. And my inbox is brimming with your emails everyday.

According to management consultants McKinsey, the average “knowledge worker” spends 28% of their workweek managing email.

Amid this sea of digital debris, your emails to the editor stand out as important. Most of them ask well-reasoned questions or serve a valuable corrective function. I’ve pulled this reader email from a recent batch:

“Could you comment on the forces that you believe are driving the recent declines of master limited partnerships? Are the fundamentals of historic favorites going south? How much of the decline is driven by falling oil prices, a probable fourth quarter rate increase by the Federal Reserve, and political ineffectiveness in Washington, DC? What’s your prognosis for MLPs over the next 6–12 months?” — Mark D.

Most of the blame for the woes of MLPs must go to the downward trajectory of energy prices. The MLP sector looks range bound, which isn’t the worst news over the long term given the yield and the growth rate. We see limited downside from current levels and big upside once energy prices lift.

The energy sector’s downturn forced shale producers to cut every bit of fat from their operations and find additional savings through various innovations, so they can remain profitable even if oil does stay lower for longer.

That’s good news for MLPs, whose businesses are ultimately dependent on financially healthy producers being able to pay for their services.

Breakeven costs for production in the most prolific shale basins are in the low $40s per barrel. Furthermore, many producers used oil’s end-of-year rally as an opportunity to hedge most of their output at prices above $50 per barrel for the rest of the decade.

So even if crude does hover between $50 per barrel and $60 per barrel for the next few years, there should still be plenty of hydrocarbons pulled from the ground and pushed through pipelines.

On Thursday, West Texas Intermediate rose 46 cents to close at $54.76 per barrel. Brent North Sea crude rose 29 cents to close at $60.78/bbl.

Do you have any comments or questions? Or maybe you have an investing story to share? You can reach me at: — John Persinos

This Day in History

November 2, 1948: In the greatest upset in presidential election history, Democratic incumbent Harry S. Truman beat Republican Governor Thomas E. Dewey of New York.

Pollsters predicted Dewey would trounce Truman. On election night, the Chicago Tribune published an early edition with the headline “DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN.”

Truman won by more than 2 million popular votes.

Harry Truman assumed the presidency after Franklin D. Roosevelt’s death in 1945. The consensus was that Truman was out of his depth. Despite Truman’s steady leadership following World War II, he seemed a shadow of the four-term FDR.

Polls showed Truman behind, but they relied on telephone surveys. At the time, telephone ownership was skewed toward wealthier Republicans. On election day, FDR’s New Deal coalition showed up for Truman. Republicans would turn the tables in 1952, when war hero Dwight D. Eisenhower won the White House in a landslide.

The lesson is to never concede defeat when you still have a chance. Underdogs can mount comebacks.

Number of the Day: 97%

Think there was a populist uprising last year? Think again.

In the 2016 presidential election, 97% of Congress was re-elected. The advantages of incumbency tend to swamp most challengers.

The Founding Fathers expected high congressional turnover, but it hasn’t worked out that way. Most politicians today enjoy a high degree of job security. Money, organization and name recognition usually win the day. Low voter turnout also plays a role.

The moral? If you want change, roll up your sleeves and make it happen. Stump for your candidate. Or run for office yourself.

Quote of the Day

“It ain’t over till it’s over.” — baseball legend Yogi Berra