Stocks rally despite pandemic fears

A topsy-turvy session on Wall Street Thursday as the stock market vacillated between gains and losses.

By the closing bell, the Dow narrowly avoided its third straight down day, thanks to a 44-point gain. Stay-at-home stocks gave the S&P 500 a 14-point boost and pushed the Nasdaq up 103 points.

Reuters Stocks buzz editor Terence Gabriel:

"We're at sort of lofty levels. The S&P 500 recently, yes, a fresh all-time high. So the question is, can we sort of maintain these levels given all of these conflicting news stories we have surrounding the coronavirus?”

Investors had a lot to digest on Thursday. Record infection numbers have prompted schools and businesses to close once again, reigniting fears that the economic rebound that began earlier this year is in jeopardy.

Fresh data from the labor market fueled that concern. New applications for jobless benefits unexpectedly rose last week to 742,000. Data released by the Labor Department showed more than 20 million Americans received unemployment benefits at the end of October.

Worse yet, according to Glassdoor senior economist Daniel Zhao, about 12 million people are scheduled to lose jobless assistance when two government-funded programs expire right after Christmas.

"Which represents an additional risk to the economy, because not only will consumer spending be crimped, but those people might be pushed back into the labor force at exactly the wrong time when the pandemic is surging, thus creating further risk for both... from both a health perspective and the economic perspective."

That uncertainty is on Macy's radar. The department store chain warned of a tough holiday season after store sales plunged 20 percent last quarter. The stock, however, rallied as quarterly results weren't as bad as feared.

The same with L Brands. The parent of Victoria's Secret and Bath & Body Works, had a better than expected quarter thanks to solid sales of soap, lotion, hand sanitizer, and perfumes. The stock soared 17-1/2 percent to a 2-1/2 year high.

Looking outside of retail, real estate continues to be a bright spot. Sales of previously owned homes rose in October to their highest level in roughly 15 years.