Stocks barely budged on Thursday as investors shied away from making big bets before Friday's jobs data that could shed light on the economy and the outlook for interest rates.
Though caution prevailed, shares of pharmaceutical companies such as Merck & Co and those of utilities rose, countering profit-taking among recently strong oil and technology shares.
Health-care stocks are among sectors that have lagged the market and were seen due for a rebound, according to analysts, while high dividend-paying utilities tracked rising bond prices. The S&P utilities index rose nearly 1 percent.
We have a little bit of calm before the storm, said Georges Yared, founder and chief investment strategist at Yared Investment Research, in Minneapolis.
We are waiting for the jobs report tomorrow and the earnings season goes in full force in the week after next. So we are sitting here in an information vacuum.
The Dow Jones industrial average was up 6.26 points, or 0.04 percent, to end at 13,974.31. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index was up 3.25 points, or 0.21 percent, at 1,542.84. The Nasdaq Composite Index was up 4.14 points, or 0.15 percent, at 2,733.57.
The Labor Department report, due on Friday morning, is expected to show employers added 100,000 jobs outside the farm sector last month, according to economists polled by Reuters. In August, employers unexpectedly cut 4,000 jobs.
Merck's shares shot up 1.4 percent to $52.86 on the New York Stock Exchange, making the stock the Dow's top performer. Shares of rival Pfizer Inc, which named a new research chief on Wednesday, gained 0.9 percent to $25.30.
Health-care stocks are believed to be able to withstand a slowing economy, while utilities are favored for their high dividends in a falling interest-rate environment. The pharmaceutical index rose 0.6 percent.
Another Dow standout was consumer products maker Procter & Gamble, also considered a defensive play and among the beneficiaries of a weaker dollar. The stock gained 0.6 percent to close at $70.83 on the NYSE.
Among utilities, shares of power company Exelon Corp ended up 0.9 percent at $76.06, while those of Public Service Enterprise Group Inc, also a power industry player, gained 1.1 percent to $89.25. Shares of utility operator FirstEnergy Corp climbed 2.5 percent to $66.46.
But shares of oil companies declined as oil prices continued to hold below recent record highs. Exxon Mobil Corp was among the top drags on both the Dow and the S&P 500, while Apple Inc, among this week's top performers, weighed on the Nasdaq. Analysts said both the energy and tech sectors saw profit-taking.
Exxon shares ended down 0.5 percent at $90.92 on the NYSE, while shares of Apple finished down 1.1 percent at $156.24. Apple shares hit a record on Wednesday.
In the latest earnings news, hotel operator Marriott International Inc reported a lower profit and forecast future earnings below Wall Street's expectations, sending it shares down 4.6 percent to $42.28.
After the bell, BlackBerry maker Research In Motion Ltd reported a second-quarter profit that beat expectations. In Nasdaq trading, its stock rose 4.4 percent to $100.54 -- ahead of the release of the earnings report.
In a possible preview of Friday's payrolls data, reports from the private Institute for Supply Management and employment services company ADP on Wednesday showed modest job growth last month.
Thursday's economic news included a report on weekly jobless claims from the Labor Department, which showed a slightly higher number of workers seeking unemployment benefits than expected. A separate report showed a steeper-than-expected drop in August factory orders.
Trading was lighter than normal on the NYSE, with about 1.10 billion shares changing hands versus last year's estimated daily average of 1.84 billion. On Nasdaq, about 1.74 billion shares traded, below last year's daily average of 2.02 billion.
Advancing stocks outnumbered declining ones by a ratio of 5 to 3 on the NYSE and by 4 to 3 on Nasdaq.