The Dow industrials fell, on pace to decline for a fifth time in six sessions, as mixed quarterly earnings curbed sentiment ahead of Friday's readings on jobs.
The Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped six points, or 0.1%, to 12711, in Thursday afternoon trading, remaining just below a six-month high. The Standard & Poor's 500-stock index rose two points, or 0.2%, to 1329, and the technology-oriented Nasdaq Composite edged up ten points, or 0.4%, to 2858, and is up 9.7% this year.
Drug makers weighed down the Dow. Pfizer fell 1.2%, while Merck shed 0.7% after reporting fourth-quarter revenue that fell shy of expectations. Alcoa led among Dow components, climbing 2.1%, while Bank of America climbed 1.4%.
A reading that showed initial unemployment claims decreased by 12,000, to 367,000, last week slightly beat expectations. On Friday, the monthly report on nonfarm payrolls and the unemployment rate will be released.
Investors also watched for signals from Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, who testified before U.S. lawmakers Thursday. Mr. Bernanke described the pace of the U.S. economic recovery as "frustratingly slow," although he said the Fed anticipated higher levels of growth in the coming year than were seen in 2011. Mr. Bernanke also warned of the importance of addressing fiscal challenges in the U.S., pointing to the Europe's sovereign-debt crisis as an example of out-of-control fiscal policies.
"Bernanke's not a font of optimism. We're seeing some positive economic signs, but the issue is that in everybody's subconscious mind is that there are still fundamental weaknesses in the underlying economy. That's what's holding it back," said Len Blum, managing partner at Westwood Capital LLC.
European markets inched higher. The Stoxx Europe 600 rose 0.2%, its third consecutive gain. Spain raised slightly more than its planned amount of cash in a government bond sale and at lower borrowing costs than at previous auctions.
Asian bourses were broadly higher. China's Shanghai Composite surged 2% and Japan's Nikkei Stock Average gained 0.8%.
Gold futures rose 0.6%, to 1756.80 a troy ounce, a new high in 2012, while crude-oil prices lost 1.5%, to $96.11 a barrel. The dollar edged higher against the euro and the yen. The yield on 10-year U.S. Treasurys fell to 1.825%.
In the U.S., Dow Chemical fell 1.2% after the company reported fourth-quarter earnings that missed estimates, citing deterioration in the macro environment. The chemical company also said it didn't expect material improvements in market conditions this quarter.
MasterCard rose 5.8% after increased card spending helped the company turn in core earnings ahead of expectations.
Abercrombie & Fitch skidded 11%, the worst performers on the S&P 500, after the apparel retailer indicated that fiscal fourth-quarter earnings would fall well short of expectations.
Fellow retailer Ann slid 8.5% after the company said fiscal fourth-quarter results would be below expectations, citing a "significantly higher-than-anticipated" promotional environment in its Ann Taylor stores.
Other retailers fared better. Gap projected fiscal fourth-quarter earnings ahead of estimates as Banana Republic outperformed the other segments and January same-store sales declined less than expected. Shares jumped 10% and led the S&P 500.
Macy's raised its profit forecast for the fiscal fourth quarter and reported upbeat sales, signaling its recent strength continued through the holidays even as January same-store sales fell short of views. Shares advanced 3.4%.
Kohl's raised its fiscal fourth-quarter projections as it reported better-than-expected January same-store sales, sending shares up 2.5%.
Facebook's filing for an initial public offering touched off a rally in Zynga. Shares surged 18% to the highest level since the social gaming company's IPO last month. In its IPO filing, Facebook revealed that Zynga accounted for about 12% of the social network's overall revenue in 2011.
Green Mountain Coffee Roasters shot up 22% after the company reported fiscal first-quarter earnings and revenue that were well above forecasts, citing strong demand for its Keurig single-cup brewing system.
Electronic Arts's fiscal third-quarter loss narrowed as the game developer's "Battlefield 3" and "FIFA 12" titles sold well, and results topped the company's October forecast. Shares surged 6.8%.
Qualcomm rallied 2.2% after the semiconductor company's fiscal first-quarter earnings and revenue exceeded expectations, and its full-year outlook was above projections.
Kellogg's fourth-quarter earnings rose 23% as the cereal maker posted stronger-than-expected sales growth driven largely by higher prices. Shares gained 2.8%.
-By Chris Dieterich, Dow Jones Newswires; 212-416-2611; firstname.lastname@example.org