Stock Indexes

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Stocks rose on Wednesday as the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJINDICES:^DJI) took another crack at touching 20,000 points. The Dow didn't reach that milestone, but both it and the S&P 500 (SNPINDEX:^GSPC) finished higher thanks to a surge of late-session buying.

Today's stock market:

Index

Percentage Change

Point Change

Dow

0.50%

98.75

S&P 500

0.28%

6.42

Data source: Yahoo! Finance.

Gold-based ETFs saw heavy trading, but since the precious metal's price didn't swing much, both the Direxion Daily Gold Miners Bull 3X ETF (NYSEMKT:NUGT) and VanEck Vectors Gold Miners ETF (NYSEMKT:GDX) stayed even for the day.  

As for individual stocks, SUPERVALU (NYSE:SVU) and MSC Industrial (NYSE:MSM) stood out with big pricing moves after announcing quarterly business updates.

SUPERVALU's worsening growth trend

SUPERVALU sank 8% following a third-quarter earnings report that missed expectations on both the top and bottom lines. The grocery supplier delivered on its goal of increasing sales on the wholesale side of the business, but only by the smallest of margins. The segment ticked up by 0.2%, compared to a 5% decline in the prior quarter, in what management described as an important win for the business. "It is a significant accomplishment that we increased wholesale sales compared to last year given the sales lost at the end of fiscal 2016," CEO Mark Gross said in a press release. 

Grocery Shopping

Image source: Getty Images.

The retail side continued to struggle under the weight of grocery price deflation and competitive pressures. In fact, the pace of sales declines worsened to 5.7% from 5% as profit margin sank to just 0.2% of sales. Gross explained that a sharp rebound won't happen quickly. "It takes time to change customers' shopping habits," he said, "but our team is dedicated to improving our results.

While it works toward an eventual sales growth rebound, executives are busy allocating proceeds from the sale of the Save-a-Lot business to where it can have the best impact on the business. To that end, SUPERVALU recently paid down $1.1 billion of its outstanding debt and made an extra contribution to its pension plan.

MSC Industrial gets optimistic

MSC Industrial shares rose 8% after the tools specialist posted quarterly earnings results that hinted at a coming business turnaround. Yes, sales fell by 3%, but that decline beat management's expectations. Profitability showed a surprising gain, too, as operating margin rose to 13.2% of sales from 12.8% in the prior-year period. 

Demand trends firmed up in the current quarter, executives said:

As we moved into December, the start of our fiscal second quarter, we saw growth in sales, as well as improvement across all of our customer types and higher mix of machinery, machine tool accessories, tool holders, and tooling package orders.

Growth in these categories tends to coincide with broader gains in the industry, so executives are feeling optimistic that the cyclical downturn could be ending. "We are certainly more positive than even a few short months ago," Chief Financial Officer Rustom Jilla said.

The profitability growth is important because it adds weight to management's claim that MSC Industrial should enjoy significant earnings growth as soon as industry conditions stop deteriorating. Yet solid sales gains might even be in the cards. Executives forecast a revenue improvement of almost 2% in the current quarter, compared to consensus estimates that were calling for a 3% decline.

Demitrios Kalogeropoulos has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends MSC Industrial Direct. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.