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Bonds Seek Direction in Light Trade

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Prices for U.S. Treasurys were little changed in choppy trading on Thursday after data painted a mixed picture of the U.S. economy, with uncertainty about growth in coming quarters keeping yields within recent ranges.

Investors also looked ahead to key nonfarm payrolls data on Friday for more light on whether jobs are growing fast enough to satisfy policymakers. Initial jobless claims bounced off five-year lows to levels consistent with tepid job growth, data showed on Thursday, with claims rising more than expected.

Hopes that those claims could settle into a pace of about 325,000 by the end of the first quarter were shaken by the data, said Jim Vogel, interest rate strategist at FTN Financial in Memphis, Tennessee. "You've now got to think about the idea of the jobless claims setting in the 360 (thousand) to 370 (thousand) region once we get past January," he added.

However, the pace of business activity in the U.S. Midwest picked up in January from a more than three-year low the month before as new orders jumped.

Ten-year Treasury yields continued testing the 2 percent level, as they have since Monday, but found traction difficult.

While the easing of global stresses, including the euro zone debt crisis, means that "people aren't really desperate to own Treasuries," there are still question marks keeping investors wary, said Kim Rupert, managing director of global fixed income analysis at Action Economics LLC in San Francisco. From the possibility of automatic spending cuts at the start of March to lingering worries that the Fed will at some point cut off its easing spigot, investors are reluctant to push Treasuries outside recent ranges, she said.

"We're still just trying to get a clean reading, but it doesn't look like growth is going to pick up substantially anytime soon," she said.

Ten-year Treasuries could see yields within the range of around 1.70 percent to 2.10 percent in coming sessions, said William O'Donnell, head of U.S. Treasury strategy at RBS Securities in Stamford, Connecticut.

Recent higher yields have lured some investors back into buying, he said. "I think people like the levels."

Thursday's data came after the U.S. Federal Reserve ended a two-day meeting on Wednesday by leaving in place its $85 billion per month bond-buying stimulus plan.

(Read More: Fed Balance Sheet Hits Record $3 Trillion)

Ten-year notes traded flat to yield 1.992 percent. Thirty-year bonds traded 2/32 lower to yield 3.183 percent from 3.1822 percent late on Wednesday.

After a week packed with economic data, including disappointing fourth-quarter GDP figures, and the Fed meeting, investors are now turning their attention to the last major milestone of the week: nonfarm payrolls on Friday. The Fed's goal is for the unemployment rate to drop closer to 6.5 percent, but analysts in a Reuters polls see the unemployment rate staying at the current 7.8 percent.

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