After three straight record closes, stocks fell today, though a steady climb in the afternoon meant the loss was negligible. The Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJINDICES:^DJI) gave back 21 points, or 0.1%, while the S&P 500 fell by just 0.04%. The Nasdaq was off 0.07%. Trading volume was light again, and with earnings season over and no major geopolitical concerns roiling investors, we may see a relatively steady market over the next few weeks.
Recent economic reports have been strong, but stocks are already at record highs and the S&P 500 is trading at a P.E of 19.2, well above its historical average of 15.5. Stocks are unlikely to move significantly higher without a surprising improvement in the economy or another piece of unexpected good news.
The Commerce Department reported this morning that factory orders improved 0.7% in April, above expectations of 0.5%, and March's figure was revised up from 1.1% to 1.5%. The report adds further evidence that the manufacturing sector is coming back on top of recent data showing increases in durable goods orders and a jump in activity from the Chicago PMI.
Auto sales also surged in May, hitting a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 16.77 million, up 11% from a year ago. The report is yet another sign that the economy has rebounded after the winter freeze. General Motors (NYSE:GM), the nation's No. 1 car seller, sold 284,694 vehicles, a 13% jump from a year ago, and a sign that the company's massive recalls in the past few months have not had a significant effect on its standing with consumers. Shares of the car-maker finished up 1.2%.
Elsewhere, Hillshire Brands (UNKNOWN:HSH.DL) finished up 9.5% after Pilgrim's Pride raised its offer to buy out the maker of branded meat products to $55 a share, or $7.7 billion, topping Tyson Foods' bid of $50 a share. Pilgrim's Pride had originally offered to acquire Hillshire for $45 a share, following Hillshire's acquisition of Pinnacle Foods, which would be undone if Hillshire's sale goes through. Hillshire shares jumped to a closing price of $58.65 today, indicating that investors expect a bidding war to continue. The company also said its board will hold discussions with both PIlgrim's Pride and Hillshire, another sign it will try to coax the highest possible bid from one of its suitors. Shares of the company, which makes Jimmy Dean sausages and Ball Park franks, have jumped 57% since the bidding war began, perhaps calling into question how much more shares can appreciate before becoming too pricey for the bidders.
Jeremy Bowman owns shares of General Motors. The Motley Fool recommends General Motors. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools don't 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.