By Chris Dieterich
An upbeat earnings report from Apple powered gains in technology shares on Thursday, though weak results from several blue chips weighed on the Dow Jones Industrial Average.
The S&P 500 added three points, or 0.1%, to 1879, while the Dow industrials fell one point, or 0.1%, to 16502 in afternoon trading. On Wednesday, the Dow closed 0.5% below its Dec. 31 record closing high of 16576.66.
The tech-oriented Nasdaq Composite Index climbed 21 points, or 0.5%, to 4148, on course for its seventh advance in eight sessions.
Apple, the biggest U.S. company by stock-market value, late Wednesday reported better-than-expected fiscal-second-quarter earnings and revenue. Shares rose 8.1% after the company also increased its stock-buyback program, raised its dividend and announced a seven-for-one stock split.
Apple's report helped to soothe investors who have been hit hard in recent weeks by declines in fast-moving tech and biotechnology stocks. The Nasdaq finished Wednesday with a 2.4% loss over the past month.
Apple's earnings report "certainly helps bring people back to the tech sector," said Robert Pavlik, chief market strategist at Banyan Partners, which oversees $4.5 billion in assets. It "refocuses them on the fact that there is still value to be had there," he said.
With 41% of the S&P 500 having reported first-quarter results through midday Thursday, overall earnings per share are now seen falling 0.2% from year-ago levels, according to FactSet, compared with expectations of a 1.4% decline when earnings season started a little over two weeks ago.
Stocks got off to a slow start in April amid concerns about soft corporate earnings and weak readings on the U.S. economy. Traders said stock gains in recent days show that most investors are holding firmly to their stock positions.
"For all the concerns at the beginning of April, here we are just a couple points away from new highs," said Ryan Larson, head of equity trading at RBC Global Asset Management. "It has almost been a complete round trip."
"Earnings have helped, this flurry of M&A activity has helped," he said, referring to a recent uptick in mergers and acquisitions this week.
Zimmer Holdings surged 11% on Thursday after the company said it agreed to buy privately held orthopedic-device maker Biomet Inc. for about $13.35 billion in cash and stock.
Earlier in the week, William Ackman's Pershing Square Capital Management and Valeant Pharmaceuticals disclosed an offer to buy Botox maker Allergan, and GlaxoSmithKline and Novartis announced a series of transactions, including Novartis' $14.5 billion purchase of Glaxo's oncology unit.
Shares of Facebook swung between gains and losses after the social network late Wednesday topped first-quarter earnings and revenue forecasts. Shares fell 0.3% in recent trading.
U.S. stocks briefly turned lower early on Thursday after news reports that the Russian military was launching new exercises along Ukraine's border.
Gold futures jumped and other haven investments, such as Treasurys and the yen, also got a boost. These assets, which investors see as safer than stocks and other bets that are more sensitive to various risks, later pared gains.
Yousef Abbasi, New York-based market strategist at brokerage JonesTrading Institutional Services, said that after sharp declines in March and early April for previously highflying stocks, many short-term traders have itchy trigger fingers.
"The fast money is still on edge," Mr. Abbasi said. "There certainly is some tension out there: The market is holding near all-time highs, and when nerves set in, people take profits."
Elsewhere, 3M slipped 0.9% after results came up a bit shy of forecasts.
Caterpillar gained 1.9%, after exceeding earnings and revenue estimates.
Verizon Communications fell 2.8% after the company said its profit more than doubled in the first quarter, but added fewer postpaid subscribers than rival AT&T, which reported earlier this week.
Qualcomm slumped 3.8% after better-than-expected fiscal second-quarter earnings were overshadowed by disappointing revenue and a downbeat current-quarter earnings outlook.
General Motors fell 1% after the auto maker's first-quarter results fell 82% but far exceeded Wall Street's expectations.
Falling prices for 10-year Treasury notes pushed up the yield to 2.690%, from 2.686% late Wednesday. Gold futures added 0.5% to $1,291.50 a troy ounce.
Investors digested mixed U.S. economic data. Initial claims for jobless benefits rose 24,000 to 329,000 in the latest week, versus expectations of 315,000. Separately, durable-goods orders in March increased 2.6% on the month, the biggest gain in four months, exceeding forecasts of a 2% rise.
In Europe, the Stoxx Europe 600 ended a choppy session up 0.3%. Worries about tension in Ukraine sent Russia's MICEX index down 2.2%.
Asian markets were mostly lower, with China's Shanghai Composite falling 0.5%, the fifth loss in six sessions, and Japan's Nikkei Stock Average shedding 1%.
Crude-oil futures added 0.5% to $101.89 a barrel, after suffering the biggest two-day decline in six weeks through Wednesday. The dollar fell against the euro and the yen.
Write to Chris Dieterich at firstname.lastname@example.org