Stocks close higher in choppy trade as oil slides

U.S. equities closed slightly higher in choppy trading Thursday as investors digested weaker-than-expected economic data and kept an eye on falling oil prices.

Oil prices whipsawed Thursday, with West Texas Intermediate settling at $31.72 a barrel, down 1.7 percent, after rising more than 3 percent at session highs.

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"I think the [equity] market is kind of chopping around," said Maris Ogg, president at Tower Bridge Advisors. "The problem is that a lot of the negatives about falling commodity prices are still being worked into the system."

The Dow added over nearly 150 points at session highs, after opening slightly lower. However, the blue chips index struggled to hold those gains, closing about 80 points higher. At its session lows, the index fell 70.5 points, while gaining 149.18 points at session highs.

The S&P 500 and the Nasdaq composite closed mildly higher, after gaining more than 0.5 percent at session highs.

"We've seen a few brief moments of decoupling [between oil and stock prices]," said Randy Frederick, managing director of trading and derivatives at Charles Schwab. "I think the key is for oil to stabilize."

WTI rallied on Wednesday, settling 8 percent higher.

"Yesterday was a combination of the dollar and speculation that Russia and OPEC were going to meet," said Peter Cardillo, chief market economist at First Standard Financial.

The U.S. dollar fell sharply Wednesday, with the dollar index falling more than 1 percent after New York Fed President William Dudley said that tighter financial conditions could weigh on the Federal Reserve's decision to move forward with its plan to normalize rates.

"It's one of those things that bad news is not as bad if it keeps the Fed at bay," said Bruce McCain, chief investment strategist at Key Private Bank.

The greenback resumed its downward trajectory Thursday, falling about 0.8 percent, and hit its lowest level since Oct. 23.

Productivity declined 3 percent in the fourth quarter, its biggest drop since the first quarter of 2014, the Labor Department said Thursday.

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"[Three percent] is a lot," First Standard's Cardillo said. "That's one more piece of macro data that suggests flat-to-negative growth."

Meanwhile, U.S. jobless claims rose 8,000 to 285,000 last week, while economists were expecting a total of 280,000.

Despite the increase last week, claims remained below 300,000, a level associated with strong labor market conditions, for the 48th-straight week. That is the longest run since the early 1970s.

However, the Lindsey Group Chief Market Analyst Peter Boockvar said in a note that "this brings the four-week average to 285k from 283k last week and 285k in the week prior. This level thus matches the highest since April 2015."

"Bottom line, the multiyear decline in claims in this cycle has ended and now is curling up. What this means for hiring will not necessarily be reflected in tomorrow's payroll report but is certainly something to watch in the months to come."

Factory orders for December fell 2.9 percent, the Commerce Department said. Economists were expecting a 2.6 percent fall.

Read More Banks report drop in demand for loans

"When you take a look at the economic data we got this morning ... there is nothing [positive]," said Robert Pavlik, chief market strategist at Boston Private Wealth. "I'd like to see some of the economic data improve."

Investors will dissect the January jobs report on Friday.

"I actually expect that number to be down, but still strong," said Mark Luschini, chief investment strategist at Janney Montgomery Scott. "As long as that number doesn't fall to the low 100,000s or, God forbid, the 85,000 range — that would be dismal — we should be fine."

In corporate news, investors digested a slew of earnings reports from companies such as AstraZeneca, Cigna and Philip Morris, among others.

ConocoPhillips also posted quarterly results, while at the same time slashing its dividend. The company's stock fell 8.57 percent.

Read MoreConocoPhillips cuts dividend; Who is safe?

In Europe, stocks closed lower with the pan-European STOXX 600 index falling 0.2 percent. Asian equities were mixed overnight, with the Shanghai composite gaining 1.5 percent and the Nikkei 225 dropping 0.85 percent.

Symbol
Name
Price
 
Change
%Change
DJIA
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S&P 500
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NASDAQ
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The Dow Jones industrial average closed 79.92 points higher, or 0.49 percent, at 16,416.5, with Caterpillar leading advancers and Nike the biggest laggard.

The S&P 500 gained 2.92 points, or 0.15 percent, to close at 1,915.45, with materials leading four sectors higher and consumer staples lagging.

The Nasdaq added 5.32 points, or 0.12 percent, to end at 4,509.56.

U.S. Treasury yields fell, with the benchmark 10-year yield trading at 1.85 percent.

The CBOE Volatility Index (VIX), widely considered the best gauge of fear in the market, traded below 22.

The Dow Transports gained 3.17 percent, posting their best one-day performance since Aug. 1, 2013.

Advancers led decliners 2 to 1 on the New York Stock Exchange, with an exchange volume of 1.207 billion and a composite volume of 5.157 billion at the close.

Gold futures settled $16.20 higher, at $1,157.50 an ounce.

On tap this week:

Thursday

Earnings: Hartford Financial, LinkedIn, News Corp., Symantec, Decker's Outdoor, DeVry Education, Lions Gate

4:30 p.m.: Fed Balance Sheet/Money Supply

5 p.m. Cleveland Fed President Loretta Mester on economy, policy

Friday

Earnings: BNP Paribas, Nippon Telegraph, Estee Lauder, Toyota Motors, Tyson Foods, Moody's, Weyerhaeuser, Aon, CME Group, Ametek

8:30 a.m. Employment report; international trade

1 p.m.: Oil rig count

3 p.m. Consumer credit, Treasury STRIPS

*Planner subject to change.

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— Reuters contributed to this report.