By Joe Wallace and Frances Yoon 

The sharp rally in U.S. stocks this week appeared set to pause Thursday, with futures drifting as tensions with China mounted and investors awaited weekly jobless claims data.

Futures tied to the S&P 500 flitted between gains and losses, suggesting the benchmark will open roughly flat. Contracts linked to the Dow Jones Industrial Average edged up 0.6%. The blue-chips gauge closed above 25000 for the first time since early March on Wednesday, and posted its largest two-day advance in over a month.

The House passed a bill late Wednesday that would sanction Chinese officials involved in the suppression of Muslim minority groups, adding to the exchange of barbs between Beijing and Washington in recent days. The move came just hours after the State Department determined that Hong Kong no longer has a high degree of autonomy from China, opening the way for President Trump to take a range of steps including revoking special arrangements on trade.

China on Thursday hardened its stance, forging ahead with a resolution to impose national-security laws on Hong Kong in a bid to crush anti-Beijing protests. Growing strains between the U.S. and China over the world-wide Covid-19 pandemic, technology and a widening rivalry for global influence have renewed concerns among investors about a revival in the trade war that rocked markets last year.

"It's just another potential concern on top of Covid," said Brian O'Reilly, head of market strategy at Italian asset manager Mediolanum. "Whether we actually get into trade war 2.0 -- I think even in a second term for Trump, they'd be reticent to go down that path."

Hong Kong's Hang Seng Index fell 0.7% by the close of trading. The resolution passed by China's legislature would allow senior lawmakers in Beijing to write legislation to prevent and punish acts of separatism, subversion, terrorism and foreign interference in Hong Kong. The laws would then be promulgated by the city's leader. The resolution would also allow mainland Chinese state-security agencies to operate officially in Hong Kong, according to the draft.

"Investors are worried about whether that means there could be new trade barriers introduced," said Chang Wei Liang, a strategist at DBS Bank. "This will be lingering on investors' minds until we get clarity on what the U.S. intends to do with Hong Kong."

International markets climbed. The Stoxx Europe 600 rose 1.2%, led by gains in travel-and-leisure stocks. Japan's Nikkei 225 jumped 2.3% by the close of trading.

In the U.S., investors will get another look at how the American labor market is coping with a historic shock when weekly data on jobless claims are released at 8:30 a.m. ET. Economists at Deutsche Bank forecast that 2.1 million people filed for unemployment benefits in the week through May 23, down from 2.438 million the week before. That would still be more than three times greater than the pre-coronavirus record high.

Stocks are likely to pull back at some point given the degree of uncertainty surrounding the global economy as lockdown measures are relaxed, said Michael Drummey, head of U.S. equity risk trading at Mizuho Americas LLC. "The market is acting in a way that doesn't really line up with that uncertainty," he said. "We have a FOMO rally -- a fear of missing out."

A key question for investors is whether economically sensitive stocks can extend their recent rally, said Hugh Gimber, a strategist at J.P. Morgan Asset Management. "It's been the most beaten-up sectors that have really caught the bounce," he said, pointing to gains for shares in U.S. banks and travel companies.

Shares in technology companies have paused in recent days, having powered much of the recovery in U.S. stocks since March. They could come under further pressure in response to a draft executive order that Mr. Trump is expected to sign Thursday, Mr. Gimber said. The order would seek to limit the broad legal protection that federal law currently provides social-media and other online platforms, according to people familiar with the draft.

China's yuan weakened to as low as 7.1872 to the U.S. dollar in offshore markets, putting it close to its weakest levels since offshore trading was allowed in 2010. Later in the day, the currency regained ground, rallying to 7.1715 per dollar.

Tensions between Washington and Beijing have pushed the yuan lower, said Paul Sandhu, head of multiasset quantitative solutions for Asia-Pacific at BNP Paribas Asset Management. Another factor building pressure on the currency: Chinese investors are pursuing returns in overseas markets.

Write to Joe Wallace at and Frances Yoon at


(END) Dow Jones Newswires

May 28, 2020 05:50 ET (09:50 GMT)

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