Stock Indexes

Image source: Getty Images.

Despite gaining nearly 1% early in the trading session, stocks ended up with more modest gains on Thursday. The Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJINDICES:^DJI) and the S&P 500 (SNPINDEX:^GSPC) indexes each finished higher by less than 0.5%.

Today's stock market

Index

Percentage Change

Point Change

Dow

0.30%

59.85

S&P 500

0.39%

8.73

Data source: Yahoo! Finance.

Gold prices slumped as investors digested prospects for increasing interest rates over the coming year. The decline meant a rough day for investors in the VanEck Vectors Gold Miners ETF (NYSEMKT:GDX), which fell 4%. The highly leveraged Direxion Daily Gold Miners Bull 3X ETF (NYSEMKT:NUGT), meanwhile, slumped by 14%.

As for individual stocks, Pier 1 Imports (NYSE:PIR) and Athenahealth (NASDAQ:ATHN) both stood out with market-thumping gains on Thursday.

Pier 1 Imports returns to sales growth

Pier 1 shares soared 32% to bring their 2016 return to over 70% following surprisingly strong third-quarter results. Rather than post a slight decline in comparable-store sales as the company had forecast in November, Pier 1 instead booked a 2% increase. The shift was driven by higher customer traffic and not increased promotions. As a result, gross profit margin surged nearly 3 full percentage points to pass 41% of sales. "Sales trends rebounded in the second half of November, following the election," CEO Alex Smith explained in a press release, "which enabled us to deliver third quarter results well ahead of our forecast."

Pir

Image source: Pier 1 Imports.

Smith and his team see the positive momentum carrying through the entire holiday season. To that end, they boosted their fourth quarter forecast to flat comps rather than the 2% drop they had originally predicted. Profits are now expected to stop at $0.32 per share, up from the prior $0.26-per-share target.

Pier 1 still faces significant challenges. For example, it aims to close as many as 15 of its least-profitable stores in the coming fiscal year. Expenses are creeping higher, too, thanks to increased advertising spending. But shareholders can at least feel confident that this year's holiday season won't result in large inventory writedowns. Instead, Pier 1 appears to be gaining relevance with its customers at just the right time.

Athenahealth raises its forecast

Athenahealth, which helps healthcare providers manage services like electronic health records and medical billing, soared 23% after issuing a bullish outlook for the coming year. The company said it sees revenue spiking by as much as 21% to $1.33 billion, for an acceleration over the current year that's also well above the consensus estimate targeting $1.1 billion of sales. "We are a growth company and we continue to see expansive market opportunities for our network-enabled services," Chief Financial Officer Karl Stubelis said in a press release.

The industrywide move toward digitized healthcare records is lifting Athenahealth's fortunes. Sales are up 17% over the last nine months as the company expanded its network of providers by 10,000. In addition to network growth, investors are gaining optimism that improving profitability will eventually deliver significant profit gains. Gross margin recently passed 65% of sales, up from 63% in 2015. Athenahealth is likely to see even faster improvement in that core metric if sales growth accelerates next year, as management has predicted.

Investors are paying a large premium for that level of optimism, though. Athenahealth is valued at over 200 times the past year's earnings and more than 60 times next year's projected profits.

Demitrios Kalogeropoulos has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Athenahealth. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.