This story was updated at 4:20 p.m. EDT.
U.S. stocks closed near flat Thursday as investors waver ahead of Friday’s monthly U.S. jobs report. The Dow Jones Industrial Average and Standard & Poor's 500 index managed their second consecutive quarterly gain after a tumultuous first three months of the year. The tech-heavy Nasdaq, however, saw its worst quarter in seven years.
A weaker U.S. dollar, which hit a five-month low on Wednesday, helped boost precious metals and other commodities while sending export-dependent Japanese shares lower. European markets reacted to anemic regional inflation data.
“It’s the last trading day of the month and of the quarter, and market action so far shows traders around the world taking profits and squaring in markets that have rallied over the last six weeks,” said Colin Cieszynski, analyst at CMC Markets, said in a note Thursday.
The Dow Jones Industrial Average (INDEXDJX:.DJI) closed down 31.57 points, or 0.18 percent, to 17,685.09 Thursday. The broader Standard & Poor’s 500 index (INDEXSP:.INX) shed 4.21 points, or 0.2 percent, to 2,059,74. The Nasdaq composite (INDEXNASDAQ:.IXIC) ticked up 0.55 points or 0.01 percent to 4,869.85.
Friday’s monthly U.S. jobs report is expected by economists polled by Reuters to show a 205,000 increase in the number of employed Americans after increasing by 242,000 in February’s preliminary reading. The unemployment rate is expected to remain unchanged at 4.9 percent, an eight-year low. The more important data will be whether hourly wages have grown and whether the number of unemployed people returning to the job hunt has risen. Both wage growth and labor-force participation have been a concern in the years since the Great Recession.
A weekly report on the number of Americans who filed initial jobless claims was higher than expected but below the level associated with a healthy labor market. The U.S. Labor Department said a seasonally adjusted 276,000 people filed for unemployment insurance last week, higher than the 265,000 average forecast from economists polled by Thomson Reuters.
Readings below 300,000 are considered a sign of an improving labor market and the number has been below that for 55 consecutive weeks, the longest stretch since the early 1970s. The four-week moving average, which is considered a better measure because it shows a broader trend, was 263,250 initial claims, a slight increase of 3,500.
Oil prices were particularly volatile Thursday morning in New York as the U.S. dollar declined against a basket of other global currencies. A weaker dollar makes dollar-denominated commodities, including oil, cheaper for holders of other currencies. But crude futures traders couldn’t decide on a direction.
After dipping briefly into positive territory, U.S. West Texas Intermediate fell 0.05 percent at $38.30 after topping $40 last week for the first time since early December. Brent crude, the other major global oil-price benchmark, rose 0.87 percent to $39.60.
The benchmark U.S. 10-year Treasury fell to 1.78 percent Thursday from Wednesday’s settlement yield of 1.83 percent. The bond yield typically rises when investors are more confident about the markets and falls when concerns flare and demand for U.S. debt increases. The yield is down nearly 20 percent since the start of the year, when it was above 2 percent, after hitting a low of 1.53 percent in mid-February.
Gold, another so-called safe harbor investment, gained 0.40 percent to $1,233.50 per troy ounce. Gold prices tend to rise as confidence in the markets falls. Gold has seen its biggest three-month gain since the third quarter of 1990.
European shares closed lower Thursday on weak growth in core inflation data (which exclude volatile food and energy prices). French and Spanish rates were unchanged at -0.1 percent and Italy’s prices fell further into negative territory as deflationary risks persist in the eurozone.
The broad pan-European Stoxx Europe 600 fell 0.97 percent. The Paris-based CAC 40 dropped 1.34 percent while London’s FTSE lost 0.46 percent. Frankfurt’s DAX was down 0.81 percent.
Asian stocks closed mixed Thursday with mainland Chinese traders digesting a raft of local corporate earnings. Weakness in the Chinese banking sector were offset by elevated optimism in real estate and transportation companies. Export-dependent Japanese shares followed the U.S. dollar lower while a small, buy-on-the-dip rally in mining boosted Australia’s commodity-dependent market.
China’s broad CSI 300 Index of the mainland’s largest companies closed up a slight 0.06 percent. Japan’s Nikkei 225 spent much of the day in the green but ended 0.71 percent lower. Hong Kong’s Hang Seng struggled for gains but fell short by 0.13 percent. Australia’s S&P/ASX 200 rose 1.45 percent while South Korea’s main Kospi Index lost 0.31 percent.