Pausing from Wednesday's surge, stocks ended Thursday's session little chaged as investors weighed a continued drop in oil prices and reports of tepid retail sales.
The Dow Jones industrial average fell 5.1 points, or 0.05%, to 10,585.12. The broader Standard & Poor's 500 index was down 1.04 points, or 0.09%, to 1,190.33, amid weakness in energy stocks. The Nasdaq composite index rose 5.34 points, or 0.25%, to 2,143.57, supported by gains in computer, Internet, and biotech groups.
In the energy markets, January NYMEX crude settled down $2.24 at $43.25 per barrel. From Tuesday's highs of $50.45, the January contract has fallen over 14%, much of the slide attributed to a combination of better heating oil inventory levels, and milder temperatures throughout the Northeast, says Action Economics.
Traders noted broad-based selling since Wednesday, and from a technical standpoint, do not rule out a sub-$40 oil price in the relatively near term, says Action Economics. Also lending to the bearish outlook have been comments from OPEC officials, who have indicated the cartel will likely keep pumping at full capacity for the foreseeable future, says Action Economics.
The continued decline in oil futures is a positive for equity prices, but the impact of lower oil was not as great as it was in Wednesday's session, notes Paul Cherney, chief market analyst for Standard & Poor's.
Investors will have some key data to consider Friday. Technology bellwether Intel (INTC) will give its mid-quarter update after Thursday's market close.
Friday's employment report is expected to show nonfarm payrolls rose 199,000 in November. The unemployment rate is forecast to fall to 5.4% from 5.5% in October. Overall, the data should confirm that job growth remains healthy, which bodes well for the economic outlook, says Action Economics.
Also coming out Friday is the Institute for Supply Management's reading on the services sector.
In economic news Thursday, U.S.
initial jobless claims rose 25,000 to 349,000 for the week ended Nov. 27, following an upwardly revised 324,000 the prior week. The 4-week moving average rose to 336,000 from 332,000. Continuing claims fell 20,000 for the week ended Nov. 13. All the interest is on Friday's November payroll report, notes Action Economics.
The October reading on
factory orders, which rose 0.5%, better than expected, after flat growth in September.
Among sectors in the spotlight Thursday, retailers reported mixed November sales. Wal-Mart Stores (WMT) posted 0.7% higher U.S. same-store sales and 8.7% higher total sales, as its holiday sales came in weaker than expected. Some specialty stores reported strong sales growth for last month, including American Eagle Outfitters (AEOS) and Children's Place (PLCE).
However, a number of chains reported sales declines, including AnnTaylor (ANN), Limited Brands (LTD) and Pier 1 Imports (PI), which cut its third-quarter earnings per share guidance.
In tech, computer storage stocks rose as investors focused on Network Appliance's (NTAP) upbeat analyst day, whereby the company focused on its ability to continue to drive substantial growth.
Treasury prices fell, sending yields higher, as the market was tugged in opposite directions by data and external events, but ended settling at the lower end of the day's range ahead of Friday's employment report. The 10-year yield vaulted to 4.40% after European Central Bank President Trichet said the bank had discussed rate hikes, not cuts, and remained vigilant on inflation -- despite the evident strength of the euro, which had led some to the opposite conclusion, reports Action Economics.
In currencies, the U.S. dollar recovered amid short-covering ahead of the employment report and talk of currency-market intervention by the Bank of Japan and the European Central Bank. Earlier, the dollar fell against the euro, which logged a fresh record peak at 1.3383.
European stock markets finished higher on Thursday. London's Financial Times-Stock Exchange 100 index was up 15.5 points, or 0.33%, to 4,751.2 as December Brent crude oil futures fell to $41.50 on excess supplies worries.
Germany's DAX index rose 30.37 points, or 0.73%, to 4,216.4, but was restrained by a report that the German unemployment rate rose to six-year high of 10.8% in November. That's one reason the European Central Bank left rates unchanged at Thursday's policy meeting. DaimlerChrysler (DCX) was higher as the company said November U.S. sales of Chrysler and Mercedes-Benz vehicles rose 4.4%.
In Paris, the CAC 40 index gained 14.74 points, or 0.39%, to 3,811.45 as oil prices fell. Alcatel (ALA) was higher after announcing plans to lay off 600 workers to cut costs.
Asian markets finished higher on Thursday, mirroring a sharp rally on Wall Street overnight. In Japan, the Nikkei 225 index climbed 188.82 points, or 1.75%, to close at 10,973.07 as investors snapped up shares despite a leap in the Japanese yen to a five-year high.
In Hong Kong, the Hang Seng index rose 98.99 points, or 0.7%, to close at 14,261.79.