Major benchmarks moved lower on Thursday morning, but still stayed relatively close to their recent record levels. Until investors get definitive news on much-watched areas like the health of the U.S. economy and the status of U.S.-Chinese trade relations, it seems as though they'll be reluctant to make major commitments in one direction or the other. As of 10:30 a.m. EST, the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJINDICES:^DJI) was down 73 points to 27,748. The S&P 500 (SNPINDEX:^GSPC) fell 9 points to 3,099, and the Nasdaq Composite (NASDAQINDEX:^IXIC) moved lower by 22 points to 8,504.
However, among certain sectors of the market, there was a lot of excitement Thursday. Marijuana stocks climbed again on hopes that the U.S. market might open up at some point in the future. Meanwhile, in the brokerage arena, a possible tie-up between two industry giants could mark the latest move in what's been a news-filled couple of months for the sector.
House bill sends cannabis higher
Marijuana stocks were broadly higher on Thursday, with the ETFMG Alternative Harvest ETF (NYSEMKT:MJ) climbing 5%. Investors reacted positively to news from Capitol Hill, where lawmakers took an initial step toward potentially legalizing marijuana at the federal level.
The House Judiciary Committee voted 24-10 to remove marijuana from a schedule of controlled substances, which is what makes cannabis sales a federal crime under current law. The move would let states have their own individual policies, explicitly acknowledging the ability for marijuana to be legal in some jurisdictions but illegal in others.
The vote is just the first step in a legalization effort. Many market watchers are optimistic that with the bill potentially coming to the full House of Representatives, it has a fairly high probability of passing. However, the big challenge will come if the measure goes to the Senate. High-profile senators, including Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., have opposed legalizing cannabis in the past.
Marijuana companies have high hopes that opening up the U.S. market more broadly will help them grow more quickly. After having been disappointed with the rollout of recreational cannabis in Canada over the past year, investors are cautiously optimistic about the bigger opportunities on the other side of the border.
Schwab, TD Ameritrade look to get together
Meanwhile, shares of brokerage giants Schwab (NYSE:SCHW) and TD Ameritrade (NASDAQ:AMTD) both jumped, climbing 9% and 19%, respectively. Reports suggested that the two companies are in talks to merge as the brokerage industry tries to react to new competitive pressures.
Details of the potential deal weren't entirely clear, although some reports suggested that Schwab would buy the smaller TD Ameritrade at a price of $26 billion. With a market capitalization of more than $60 billion, Schwab is significantly larger than its potential target.
Industry consolidation makes sense as competition among rival brokerage companies heats up. Schwab recently eliminated its commissions on online stock and ETF trades, and TD Ameritrade was among those brokers that responded in kind. Now, the brokers are trying to figure out how to replace that lost revenue. Increasing scale to boost efficiency is one way to fight against the anticipated hit to profits.
If Schwab and TD Ameritrade do end up merging, it'd make it even tougher on smaller industry peers. The result could be a wave of mergers and combinations that could reduce competition and eventually help the survivors figure out how to become more profitable. In the interim, investors should watch closely to see how this latest round of strategic moves turns out.