By Donna Kardos Yesalavich
U.S. stocks edged higher Thursday as better-than-expected housing and retail data provided some encouragement, but caution ahead of Friday's employment report limited the gains.
The Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJI) rose 14 points, or 0.1%, to 10,288, in recent trading. The Nasdaq Composite (RIXF) advanced 0.7% to 2,190 and the Standard & Poor's 500-stock index (SPX) gained 0.7% to 1,086.
Retailers led the small climb after sales for the back-to-school buying month of August largely came in better than expected. Nordstrom (JWN) jumped 6.6%, Limited Brands (LTD) advanced 5.5% and J.C. Penney (JCP) rose 2.7%.
Homebuilders were also strong, as investors were heartened by an unexpected increase in pending sales of used homes, a surprising reversal after the index fell two months in a row following the April 30 expiration of a tax credit for buyers. D. R. Horton (DHI) rose 3%, PulteGroup (PHM) added 2% and Lennar (LEN) climbed 1.4%.
However, the retail sales reports came on easy comparisons, and Lawrence Yun, chief economist for the National Association of Realtors, warned that the housing market's recovery would still be a long one.
"It's kind of treading water at this point in time," said Edmund Hyland, managing director and a global investment specialist for JPMorgan Private Bank's southeastern region. "We're in a situation where expectations are that things are not very good at all, and so when you get numbers that really aren't that good but aren't as bad as people expected they would be, you get a positive response."
Thursday's data had its disappointments. U.S. factory orders rose less than expected in July, while the level of U.S. workers filing new jobless claims last week suggested lingering troubles in the job market, and second-quarter productivity fell more than previously thought.
Meanwhile, the government's monthly employment report due Friday loomed. 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 recovery is stumbling along at this point," Hyland said. "It's been carried by strength in the corporate sector. What the market would like to see is that it starts to translate to jobs because consumers still account for a significant portion of GDP."
Volume was relatively weak, with 2.7 billion shares having changed hands in NYSE Composite trading as of 2:40 p.m. EDT. The 2010 daily average is 5.01 billion shares, although the average was lower in August, just over 4 billion shares.
The euro (CUR_EURUSD) edged up to $1.2806, 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.
Treasurys were mixed, with an increase in the two-year note pushing its yield down to 0.49% while a decline in the 10-year note (UST10Y) lifted its yield up to 2.63%. Crude-oil futures edged up to nearly $75 a barrel, while gold futures also advanced.
Among stocks in focus, Burger King Holdings (BKC) soared 24% as the fast-food retailer confirmed that 3G Capital has signed a deal to buy the company for $24 a share.
Meanwhile, computer maker Dell (DELL) withdrew from the bidding war for 3Par surrendering the storage maker to rival Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) after the tech giant lifted its offer to $2.1 billion. 3Par (PAR), which makes storage products used in cloud computing, accepted H-P's offer, valuing the company at $33 a share. H-P edged up 0.8%, while Dell rose 1.9% and 3PAR climbed 2.4%.