U.S. stocks edge higher as energy prices rise; dollar weakens

NEW YORK (AP) — U.S. stocks again ticked higher Thursday as the continuing rebound in oil prices gave energy companies a lift. The gains were modest, however, as investors have been avoiding big moves. The dollar weakened further, and compared to the yen it’s at its lowest in almost three years.

Stocks wobbled in the early part of the day, but energy companies were a standout as the price of U.S. oil reached its highest level since the beginning of July. The weakening dollar aided exporters including technology and chemical companies. The market turned higher in the afternoon. Phone company stocks continued to slump, as did financial firms. Stocks haven’t moved much this week and haven’t made many big moves over the last month.

Ryan Detrick, senior market strategist for LPL Financial, said the U.S. market tends to be calm in August and trading volume is usually low. Lower trading volume means surprising events can cause big swings for stocks, but so far, it’s made this month the opposite of January and early February, when stocks tumbled and the markets were rattled.

“We had record volatility to start the year and these things do tend to revert,” he said. “It’s amazing how quickly things change.”

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The Dow Jones industrial average picked up 23.76 points, or 0.1 percent, to 18,597.70. The Standard & Poor’s 500 added 4.80 points, or 0.2 percent, to 2,187.02. The Nasdaq composite rose 11.49 points, or 0.2 percent, to 5,240.15.

Benchmark U.S. crude gained $1.43, or 3.1 percent, to $48.22 a barrel in New York. Brent crude, used to price international oils, rose $1.04, or 2.1 percent, to $50.89 a barrel in London. That gave energy companies a lift, and Marathon Oil rose 98 cents, or 6.2 percent, to $16.68 while Devon Energy gained $1.45, or 3.3 percent, to $44.76.

Oil prices have rallied over the last two weeks, but they have essentially remained between $40 and $50 a barrel for the last four months. After oil traded as low as $26.21 a barrel in February, that relative stability has boosted energy company stocks.

The dollar fell to 99.98 yen, its lowest level since October 2013. The euro rose to $1.1354 from $1.1290. The dollar was worth about 120 yen at the start of the year and it’s been gradually weakening. A weaker dollar is good for U.S. exporters like chemical, mining and technology companies.

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On Wednesday the Federal Reserve released minutes from its latest meeting, which investors took as new confirmation the Fed is in no hurry to raise interest rates again.

Detrick cautioned that the yen sometimes gains strength when investors are nervous

Wal-Mart Stores climbed $1.37, or 1.9 percent, to $74.30. The world’s largest retailer raised its annual estimates after reporting strong results for the second quarter. The company is revamping stores and has won back some customers. Wal-Mart, which has lost sales to sites like Amazon as people make more purchases online, is also buying online retailer Jet.com for $3 billion as it fights for more online shoppers.

Internet gear maker Cisco Systems reported unimpressive quarterly results and said it will lay off 5,500 employees, or about 7 percent of its staff. The company had already cut about 10,000 jobs over the last few years and it joins companies like Microsoft, Intel and HP in eliminating jobs and overhauling its product lines. Its stock lost 24 cents to $30.48.

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Prison operating companies nosedived after the Justice Department said it will end or sharply reduce contracts with the companies, saying privately-run prisons have more safety and security problems than prisons run by the government. The number of people in federal prison has fallen in recent years, but 22,000 people were in private prisons at the end of last year. That’s about 12 percent of all federal inmates.

Corrections Corp. stock plunged $9.65, or 35.5 percent, to $17.57 and Geo Group tumbled $12.78, or 39.6 percent, to $19.51. Both stocks hit their lowest levels in years. The two companies each get about half their revenue from contracts with the federal government. However the new policy doesn’t cover private detention facilities used by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and both companies operate those facilities.

Harley-Davidson stock skidded after the U.S. government said the motorcycle company made racing tuners that caused some bikes to emit higher-than-allowed amounts of some types of air pollutants. The shares dropped as much as 8 percent, although they recovered some of those losses after the Justice Department said Harley-Davidson agreed to settle the case by buying back and destroying the devices and paying $15 million. The stock lost 94 cents, or 1.7 percent, to $53.54.

Bond prices inched higher and the yield on the 10-year Treasury note fell to 1.54 percent from 1.55 percent.

Gold added $8.40 to $1,357.20 an ounce. Silver gained 9 cents to $19.74 an ounce and copper picked up 2 cents to $2.17 a pound.

Wholesale gasoline rose 4 cents to $1.49 a gallon. Heating oil edged up 4 cents to $1.53 a gallon. Natural gas rose 6 cents to $2.67 per 1,000 cubic feet.

Germany’s DAX added 0.6 percent and the French CAC 40 index rose 0.4 percent. Britain’s FTSE 100 gained 0.1 percent. Hong Kong’s Hang Seng rose 1 percent and Tokyo’s Nikkei 225 slid 1.5 percent. The Kospi in South Korea added 0.9 percent.