A slew of strong economic data this morning and the Fed's decision to keep the stimulus in place yesterday finally gave some upward momentum to the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJINDICES: ^DJI ) after weeks of fluctuating around the 15,500 mark. Today's gains were enough to give the blue chips a record finish, gaining 128 points, or 0.8%, to close at 15,628. The S&P 500 also broke 1,700 for the first time, ending at 1,706.
The Dow opened more than 100 points higher as investors were encouraged by initial unemployment claims last week, hitting a five-and-a-half-year low at 326,000, below expectations of 345,000. Economists sometimes prefer to look at the four-week moving average since the weekly figures can be volatile, but the moving average is falling steadily as well, hitting 341,250. Continuing unemployment claims also dropped to 2.951 million, 44,000 fewer than expected. Both numbers bode well for the official July labor report out tomorrow.
In other economic news, the Institute for Supply Management's manufacturing index surged in July, hitting 55.4, its highest level in more than two years. The reading was well ahead of projections at 51.5 and up from 50.9 last month, indicating a strong expansion last month. July auto sales were also robust as GM, Ford, and Chrysler all reported double-digit percentage gains from a year ago.
A day after it was the Dow's biggest loser, American Express (NYSE: AXP ) battled back today, finishing up 2.5% on the promising macroeconomic news above and a strong earnings report by industry peer MasterCard. Lower unemployment is good news for consumer spending and borrowing as is the increase in auto sales. MasterCard, meanwhile, finished the day up 5.9%, reporting a 13% increase in consumer spending year over year. AmEx, which already reported earnings, posted an 8% uptick in that category.
Reporting earnings this morning, Procter & Gamble (NYSE: PG ) finished up 1.7% after delivering an adjusted EPS of $0.79, better than analyst projections of $0.77. Revenue edged up 2% to $20.7 billion, a hair better than estimates. CEO A.G. Lafley, who returned as chief two months ago, said the company would focus on cost-cutting and growing its biggest and most profitable brands. The company also issued EPS guidance for the fiscal year just begun at $4.25-$4.33 and revenue growth of 1%-2%. Analysts had projected an EPS of $4.32.
Still, not every Dow stock was up today. ExxonMobil (NYSE: XOM ) finished down 1.1% after disappointing the market with its earnings report. The energy giant posted its worst per-share profit in more than three years as low crude prices deflated margins. Net income was down 57% from a year ago as EPS came in at $1.55, well below analyst projections at $1.90. Revenue dropped 16% to $106.5 billion. Exxon noted that the price of Brent crude in particular was down 10% from a year ago, but production also fell 1.9%, the ninth straight quarter it has declined. Still, Exxon should bounce back this quarter with oil prices now well above $100 a barrel.
Exxon may the biggest oil company out there, but that doesn't make it the best. If you're on the lookout for some promising energy plays, check out The Motley Fool's "3 Stocks for $100 Oil." For FREE access to this special report, simply click here now.