Stocks were little changed on Thursday as investors paused before Friday's key employment report that could shed light on the economy and the outlook for interest rates and corporate profits.

In the latest earnings news, hotel operator Marriott International Inc (MAR.N: Quote, Profile, Research) reported a lower profit and forecast future earnings below Wall Street expectations, sending it shares 4.8 percent lower at $42.18.

The Labor Department report, due on Friday morning, is expected to show employers added 94,000 jobs outside the farm sector last month, according to economists polled by Reuters. In August employers unexpectedly cut 4,000 jobs.

It's one of the premiere indicators as far as the health of our economy goes, so that could have a substantial impact on the markets, on what the (Federal Reserve's) going to do going forward and on the dollar, said Tom Schrader, managing director of U.S. equity trading at Stifel Nicolaus Capital Markets in Baltimore

The Dow Jones industrial average was up 4.23 points, or 0.03 percent, at 13,972.28. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index was up 2.61 points, or 0.17 percent, at 1,542.20. The Nasdaq Composite Index was up 3.98 points, or 0.15 percent, at 2,733.41.

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.

Jobless claims numbers were not a disaster, and factory orders were a little bit light, but not a disaster, Schrader said.

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.

Shares of energy companies declined as oil prices eased for a fifth day. Exxon Mobil Corp. slid 0.9 percent to


Citigroup Inc was up 0.8 percent at $48.29 after the Financial Times newspaper reported the firm is in talks with private equity firm Kohlberg Kravis Roberts on funding for the purchase of some of the leveraged loans on its balance sheet.

August's unexpected drop in jobs was seen as one reason the Fed cut interest rates by 50 basis points in mid-September. The move helped the Dow industrials to hit a record high this week and raised expectations for more rate cuts.