By Kristina Peterson
U.S. stocks traded in a narrow range Thursday, boosted by an unexpected increase in U.S. pending home sales and better-than-expected back-to-school sales from retailers, but hurt by employment worries.
The Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJI) rose 8 points, or 0.08%, to 10277, in recent trading.
Home Depot (HD) was the measure's best performer, up 1.8%, boosted by the housing data. Alcoa (AA) and Boeing (BA) were also strong, with gains of more than 1% each.
The Nasdaq Composite (RIXF) rose 0.4% to 2186 and the Standard & Poor's 500 index (SPX) added 0.4% to 1085, led by its consumer-discretionary sector.
The gains came as the National Association of Realtors' index for pending sales of used homes increased 5.2% to 79.4. The report represents a surprising reversal after the index fell two months in a row following the April 30 expiration of a tax credit for buyers. Economists had expected a 1% drop.
In addition, retailers delivered a late-summer surprise, with sales for the key back-to-school buying month of August largely coming in better than expected. Kohl's (KSS), J.C. Penney (JCP) and Macy's (M) all beat expectations and the latter two said back-to-school sales were going well. Kohl's climbed 1.6%, while J.C. Penney jumped 3.8% and Macy's edged up 1.1%.
However, Lawrence Yun, NAR's chief economist, warned that the housing market's recovery would still be a long one.
Meanwhile, other readings on the U.S. economy were less encouraging. U.S. factory orders rose less than expected in July, while the level of U.S. workers filing new claims last week suggested lingering troubles in the job market. Meanwhile, U.S. productivity in the second quarter fell more than previously thought, a big drop that reflects the cooling of the economy.
The data come a day ahead of the government's monthly employment report. Unemployment currently stands at 9.5%, and that figure Friday is expected to creep up to 9.6% as U.S. employers drop another 110,000 people off the payrolls.
The euro (CUR_EURUSD) edged up to $1.2804, from $1.2803 late Wednesday, after the European Central Bank kept its benchmark interest rate unchanged at a record low 1%, as expected. ECB President Jean-Claude Trichet said the ECB would extend its tool box of additional bank funding on a "full allotment" basis, citing continued uncertainties in the economy.
The U.S. Dollar Index (DXY), reflecting the U.S. currency against a basket of six others, was flat.
Treasurys were mixed, with an increase in the 2-year note pushing its yield down to 0.50% while a decline in the 10-year note lifted its yield to 2.63%.
Crude-oil futures slipped while gold futures edged higher.
Among stocks in focus, Burger King Holdings (BKC) soared 24% on reports that 3G Capital is expected to buy the fast-food retailer for $24 a share. An announcement could come later in the day.
Meanwhile, the bidding war between Hewlett-Packard and Dell over 3Par appeared to come to a finish, with H-P (HPQ) raising its latest offer to $33 a share from $30 and Dell saying it won't offer another bid. 3Par (PAR) said it determined H-P's revised proposal is "superior" to the latest one from Dell, and that the company notified Dell of its intention to terminate its merger agreement with Dell. H-P edged up 0.5% and 3Par climbed 2.2% while Dell added 1.4%.