Stocks seesawed in a tight range on Thursday as earnings reports drove individual shares, while a drop in jobless claims pointed to a slowly healing labor market before Friday's employment report.
Healthcare shares were among the losers. Drugmaker Merck & Co Inc , the No. 2 U.S. drugmaker, said profit would be little changed in 2012. The shares fell 0.6 percent to $38.38.
Technology shares outperformed the broader market. Qualcomm Inc hit its highest level in 12 years after first-quarter profit trounced estimates. Its shares gained 2.1 percent to $60.80 after hitting a high of $61.95.
Data suggests the economy is on an uptrend of late. Investor sentiment was helped as new claims for jobless benefits dropped more than expected in the latest week. The government will report January payrolls data on Friday, a key release for stocks.
A decent number, and I would expect equities to continue their advance, a not decent number and we'll have a correction. It's that simple, said Frank Lesh, a futures analyst and broker at FuturePath Trading in Chicago.
U.S. employment growth probably slowed in January as temporary workers hired during the busy holiday shopping season were laid off, but the improving labor market trend should remain intact.
Nonfarm payrolls likely rose by 150,000 after increasing 200,000 in December, according to a Reuters survey. The unemployment rate is seen holding steady at a near three-year low of 8.5 percent.
The Dow Jones industrial average <.DJI> dropped 7.68 points, or 0.06 percent, to 12,708.78. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index <.SPX> gained 1.86 points, or 0.14 percent, to 1,325.95. The Nasdaq Composite Index <.IXIC> rose 9.87 points, or 0.35 percent, to 2,858.14.
MasterCard Inc rose near 5.9 percent to $378.78 after the payment processor beat analysts' estimates for the seventh straight quarter.
Insurer Cigna Corp posted a lower-than-expected fourth-quarter profit, hurt by performance in its disability and life coverage business and international plans. Cigna also forecast 2012 earnings below Wall Street's target, sending shares down 5.4 percent to $43.19.
Boston Scientific Corp reported lower quarterly earnings as sales declined in its two biggest businesses, cardiac rhythm management and interventional cardiology. Its shares fell 5.4 percent to $5.76.
Bruce Zaro, chief technical strategist at Delta Global Asset Management in Boston, expects the current uptrend for the S&P 500 to take it to 1,370 in the first half of the year, but the index could pull back before then at around 1,330.
Green Mountain Coffee Roasters Inc soared 21.6 percent to $65.24 a day after its first-quarter earnings far exceeded expectations.
The third warmest January in 50 years hurt same-store sales at department stores and apparel retailers. But discounters such as Target and Costco as well as high-end stores beat estimates.
Target Corp rose 1.2 percent to $52.02 while Abercrombie & Fitch Co slumped 11.5 percent to $41.46, and Costco Wholesale Corp was up 2.4 percent at $85.19.
Facebook could raise as much as $10 billion in the biggest-ever Internet initial public offering, according to a filing Wednesday. In 2011, Facebook said net income rose 65 percent to $1 billion on revenue of $3.71 billion.
(Reporting by Edward Krudy; editing by Kenneth Barry)