U.S. stocks ended a solid quarter with the barest of moves on Thursday, as investors looked ahead to Friday's U.S. jobs report to provide a catalyst to push indexes to new highs for the year.
After gaining 5.4 percent in the first quarter, the benchmark S&P 500 hovered near 1,330, a level the index has been unable to break despite several attempts in the past month. A strong payrolls number may tip it over and technical momentum could kick in, lifting stocks further.
The market has stalled around this area before, said Jim Paulsen, chief investment officer at Wells Capital Management in Minneapolis. Unless we get a bad number tomorrow, this market is going to make a run at the year highs.
Stocks were resilient through the first quarter, hanging tough despite Japan's earthquake and nuclear crisis and a series of uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East. Friday's jobs report would confirm investor optimism that a strong U.S. recovery can overcome the global trouble spots.
In March, the Dow industrials outperformed both the S&P 500 and Nasdaq, indicating preference for stronger companies as overseas concerns lingered.
Initial claims for unemployment benefits last week showed the trend of labor market improvement remains intact, but at a slow pace.
The data precedes Friday's closely watched employment report from the Labor Department, which is expected to show the U.S. economy added 190,000 jobs in March.
Daily volume was light again, continuing the week's pattern. About 6.9 billion shares traded on the New York Stock Exchange, NYSE Amex and Nasdaq, below last year's estimated daily average of 8.47 billion.
The Dow Jones industrial average <.DJI> dropped 30.88 points, or 0.25 percent, to 12,319.73. The Standard & Poor's 500 <.SPX> dipped 2.43 points, or 0.18 percent, to 1,325.83. The Nasdaq Composite <.IXIC> edged up 4.28 points, or 0.15 percent, to 2,781.07.
For the month, the Dow edged up 0.76 percent, the S&P shed 0.1 percent and Nasdaq dipped 0.04 percent.
That trend also proved true for the entire first quarter, with the Dow rising 6.4 percent, compared with the S&P's gain of 5.4 percent and the Nasdaq's advance of 4.8 percent.
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Advancing stocks outnumbered declining ones on the NYSE by 1,746 to 1,241, while on the Nasdaq, about four stocks rose for every three that fell.
(Reporting by Rodrigo Campos, additional reporting by Chuck Mikolajczak; Editing by Jan Paschal)