CLOSING BELL: Stocks wobble, finish mixed as GOP pulls plug on health bill
NEW YORK — U.S. stocks flirted with sharp losses but managed a mixed finish after Republicans canceled a vote on their health care bill because it became clear the bill would fail. Investors didn't trade much as they waited for answers about the state of President Donald Trump's business-friendly agenda.
For the second day in a row, stocks started higher and wilted as it became clear the health care bill was in trouble. The Dow Jones industrial average plunged as much as 126 points in afternoon trading on reports of the bill's impending failure, although Wall Street cut its losses after the vote was canceled. Consumer-focused companies like Nike, Starbucks and clothing company PVH rose.
The health care act became something of a proxy for the rest of the Trump agenda and it dominated the market for most of this week. It was the week run for stocks since the week before the presidential election. Banks and small-company stocks, which made huge gains after Trump was elected, both suffered their biggest losses in more than a year.
President Trump and other Republican leaders said they were moving on from health care, and Michael Scanlon, a portfolio manager for Manulife Asset Management, said investors will be glad if that happens.
"You're going to see a very quick pivot to corporate tax reform," he said. A corporate tax cut could give stocks a large boost by increasing profits, and it might also raise tax revenue. After the close of trading, House Speaker Paul Ryan said Republicans will proceed with tax reform proposals, but acknowledged the health care debacle will make that task more difficult.
The Standard & Poor's 500 index finished down 1.98 points, or 0.1 percent, at 2,343.98. The Dow lost 59.86 points, or 0.3 percent, to 20,596.72 as Goldman Sachs and Boeing sank. Technology companies inched higher and the Nasdaq composite rose 11.04 points, or 0.2 percent, to 5,828.74. The Russell 2000 index of smaller-company stocks added 1.22 points, or 0.1 percent, to 1,354.64.
Trading was relatively quiet, which may have contributed to the big fluctuations.
Hospitals and insurers that do a lot of business with Medicaid celebrated the demise of the bill. HCA Holdings, the largest U.S. hospital company, climbed $2.87, or 3.5 percent, to $86.04 and Community Health Systems jumped 84 cents, or 9.7 percent, to $9.54. Among Medicaid-focused companies, Centene and Molina Healthcare each gained about 5 percent.
The American Health Care Act would likely have left more Americans uninsured and would make big changes to Medicaid, a joint federal-state health program for low-income Americans. Those stocks fell when it was introduced those stocks fell because investors were concerned hospitals would have to take in more patients who lack insurance and that insurers would get less money from Medicaid.
With the 2010 Affordable Care Act alive for another day, insurance companies slumped. Cigna fell $3.36, or 2.3 percent, to $142.82 and Anthem shed $2.63, or 1.6 percent, to $126.77.
With Trump and majority Republicans unable to pass the first big item on their agenda, there were some signs of concern that his proposals of tax cuts, infrastructure spending, and regulatory cuts will take longer. Those are aspects of Trump's proposed agenda Wall Street is excited about.
Vulcan Materials, a construction materials maker, sank $2.65, or 2.3 percent, to $112.74. Steel maker Nucor declined $1.50, or 2.4 percent, to $59.76. Construction and machinery companies also stumbled. Engine maker Cummins shed $1.45, or 1 percent, to $150.77 and Boeing sank $1.44 to $175.82.
Scanlon, of Manulife, said investors want Trump and Congress to come up with a real proposal that changes corporate taxes.
"Something needs to be done with a permanent solution, not just one of these holiday things," he said, because "the goal is to be a stimulus for domestic investment."
Bond prices rose slightly. The yield on the 10-year Treasury note fell to 2.41 percent from 2.42 percent.
U.S. crude oil futures rose 27 cents to $47.97 a barrel in New York. Brent crude, used to price international oils, added 24 cents to $50.80 a barrel in London.
In other energy trading, wholesale gasoline gained 2 cents to $1.60 a gallon. Heating oil rose 1 cent to $1.50 a gallon. Natural gas added 3 cents to $3.08 per 1,000 cubic feet.
The dollar inched down to 110.80 yen from 111.07 yen. The euro edged up to $1.0808 from $1.0786.
Gold rose $1.30 to $1,248.50 an ounce. Silver jumped 16 cents to $17.75 an ounce. Copper lost 1 cent to $2.63 a pound.
In Germany, the DAX added 0.2 percent and the French CAC 40 dropped 0.2 percent and Britain's FTSE 100 index dipped 0.1 percent. Japan's benchmark Nikkei 225 index rose 0.9 percent following recent losses. The Kospi of South Korea shed 0.2 percent while Hong Kong's Hang Seng reversed earlier losses to finish 0.1 percent higher.