U.S. stocks drifted to a slightly lower finish on Thursday, weighed down by falling energy stocks as the slump in oil prices deepened.
Chevron and Exxon Mobil were among the biggest decliners in the Dow Jones industrial average, which eased back from its latest all-time high. The Standard & Poor's 500 index also slipped below its record high set earlier this week. The Nasdaq composite bucked the trend, creeping within 61 points of its dot-com era record close.
"The market's moves are reminiscent of last year's," Rob Williams, deputy editor of NewsmaxFinance, said on "The Steve Malzberg Show" on Newsmax.TV. "The market recovered in February from a January decline, peaked in early March, then traded sideways until the beginning of April. Quantitative easing still rules."
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Expectations of rising oil supplies sent the price of crude to its lowest level in nearly a month. Benchmark U.S. crude oil fell $2.82 to close at $48.17 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange. Investors also had to sort through a mix of corporate earnings and U.S. economic reports.
"When you have a big move in the market you expect to see it pull back a little bit, catch its breath and wait for that next catalyst to move higher," said Quincy Krosby, market strategist for Prudential Financial.
The Dow ended down 10.15 points, or 0.1 percent, to 18,214.42. Among individual Dow members, Chevron lost $1.52, or 1.4 percent, to $107.06 while Exxon Mobil slid 95 cents, or 1.1 percent, to $88.65.
The S&P 500 index slipped 3.12 points, or 0.2 percent, to 2,110.74. The Nasdaq gained 20.75 points, or 0.4 percent, to 4,987.89.
The three indexes are all up for the year.
The Dow and S&P 500 opened lower on Thursday and held that course most of the day, while the Nasdaq gradually moved higher. The market's trajectory took shape early on, as traders pored over corporate earnings economic news.
The Commerce Department reported that orders for long-lasting manufactured goods rose 2.8 percent in January, the biggest increase since July. The Labor Department said that applications for unemployment benefits rose last week to a seasonally adjusted 313,000, the most in six weeks. That total is still consistent with steady hiring.
A report tracking the change in prices paid by consumers held particular interest for the market. The consumer price index, a measure of inflation, is closely watched by the Federal Reserve as it looks to begin raising its benchmark interest rate from near zero, where it's been since 2008.
Excluding volatile food and energy costs, the Labor Department's consumer price index rose 0.2 percent in January. Over the past year, those "core" prices have increased just 1.6 percent. That's below the 2 percent benchmark the Federal Reserve considers optimal for a healthy economy.
"It's definitely a mixed report," said Randy Frederick, a managing director of trading and derivatives with the Schwab Center for Financial Research. "The market is in this zone where it doesn't know whether to cheer bad news because that means rates will stay low or good news because it means the economy is getting better.
Earlier this week, Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen told Congress that the Fed is not in a hurry to raise interest rates. Lower rates make borrowing easier and tend to be a plus for financial markets.
While most economists anticipate that a rate increase is not likely before June or even later this year, rising inflation could prompt the Fed to take action sooner.
Six of the 10 sectors in the S&P 500 ended lower, with energy stocks declining 1.8 percent, the biggest drop in the index. The sector is now down 1.2 percent this year. Technology stocks led the gainers. They are up 3.9 percent this year.
Several oil drilling companies fell sharply. Ensco slid 8.2 percent, while Noble shed 5 percent. Newfield Exploration ended down 6.7 percent.
Brent crude, a benchmark for international oils used by many U.S. refineries, fell $1.58 to close at $60.05 in London.
In other futures trading on the NYMEX, wholesale gasoline fell 1.1 cents to close at $1.708 a gallon. Heating oil rose 3.2 cents to close at $2.136 a gallon. And natural gas fell 16.5 cents to close at $2.697 per 1,000 cubic feet.
Precious and industrial metals futures ended higher. Gold rose $8.60 to $1,210.10 an ounce, silver rose 15 cents to $16.58 an ounce and copper rose five cents to $2.71 a pound.
U.S. government bond prices fell. The yield on the 10-year Treasury note rose to 2.03 percent from 1.97 percent late Wednesday.
Among stocks making big moves Thursday:
Sears fell 5 percent after the company reported its fourth straight year of falling profit and revenue. Sears lost $1.85 to $36.05.
Taser International slumped 16.1 percent after its latest quarterly results fell short of Wall Street's expectations. The stock declined $4.37 to $22.69.
Salesforce.com gained 11.7 percent after the cloud software company reported a boost in quarterly revenue. The company jumped $7.37 to $70.24.
Cyberonics surged 10.3 percent on news the medical technology company's fiscal third-quarter earnings exceeded financial analysts' forecasts. The stock gained $6.23 to $66.60.
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