U.S. stocks edged higher on Thursday as a modest reading on jobless claims failed to topple upbeat expectations about Friday's U.S. payrolls report for March as the quarter quietly draws to a close.

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 monthly employment report from the U.S. Labor Department -- a large deviation in either direction from the estimate of 190,000 jobs added to March non-farm payrolls is likely to have a strong effect on markets.

Non-farm payrolls tomorrow is big -- 200,000 to 205,000 is probably the level that is being priced in right now, said

Max Bublitz, chief investment strategist at SCM Advisors in San Francisco.

We all freak out over the first number and kind of ignore the revisions but the fact is it is a very noisy number, and it's a little bit of a crapshoot.

Volume was light again on Thursday, continuing a pattern for the week, as traders opt to ride the quarter's gainers, pushing the S&P 500 up 5.7 percent in the quarter. Only 4 billion shares had traded on the New York Stock Exchange, NYSE Amex and Nasdaq heading into the session's final hours.

But the benchmark S&P has been unable to hold gains around 1,330, a level that the index has been unable to break through despite several attempts in the past month.

We are bouncing off that 1,332 level, which was kind of a double off the (March 2009) lows. We've struggled with it at times and it's been kind of a grind here, Bublitz said.

The Dow Jones industrial average <.DJI> rose 4.20 points, or 0.03 percent, to 12,354.81. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index <.SPX> added just 0.87 of a point, or 0.07 percent, to 1,329.13. The Nasdaq Composite Index <.IXIC> gained 2.98 points, or 0.11 percent, to 2,779.77.

Berkshire Hathaway's Class B shares fell 2.3 percent to $83.53 a day after the resignation of David Sokol, the man widely seen as the leading successor to Warren Buffett to run Berkshire. Sokol resigned after Buffett revealed that Sokol had bought shares in chemical company Lubrizol Corp before pushing Buffett to acquire it.

In an interview on CNBC, Sokol said he did nothing wrong in buying the shares.

Retailers ranked among the worst performers, dragged lower by Carmax Inc , which lost 6 percent to $32.52 after posting fourth-quarter earnings. The S&P Retail index <.RLX> lost 0.7 percent, while the Morgan Stanley retail index <.MVR> dropped 1.1 percent.

(Reporting by Chuck Mikolajczak; Editing by Jan Paschal)