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Stocks Eke Out Another Gain; Pharmas Drag

Stocks squeaked out another gain Thursday as investors were encouraged by Alcoa's beat and a drop in jobless claims but pharmaceutical and retail stocks dragged.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average rose 4.76, or 0.1 percent, to close at 8,183.17. The S&P 500 gained 0.4 percent and the Nasdaq added 0.3 percent.

It was a turbulent session, with the Dow crossing zero 108 times.

Increased jitters in the market have sent the CBOE Volatility Index, widely considered the best gauge of fear in the market, higher in the past few days, but today it dropped back below 30, finishing at 29.78.

Initial jobless claims plunged by 52,000last week to a much lower-than-expected 565,000. It was the lowest reading since January, and psychologically important because claims have finally dropped below 600,000.

Futures initially spiked on the number but pulled back to where they were before the report as investors dug into the report, learning that the headline number dropped mostly because of fewer-than-expected auto layoffs and continuing claims surged to another record — 6.883 million — tempering enthusiasm for the headline number.

Wholesale inventories shrunk by 0.8 percent in May, better than expected and the 1.3-percent decline in April.

Meanwhile, Warren Buffett chimed in on the stimulus debate, saying unemployment could reach 11 percent and a second stimulus package may be needed.

On the other side of the pond, the Bank of England surprised the market, leaving interest rates unchanged at 0.5 percent and leaving its quantitative-easing program alone. Economists had expected the central bank to increase the program to pump more money into the British economy.

And Germany may have climbed out of the recessionin the second quarter, a government official said today.

Alcoa reported a smaller-than-expected loss after the bell on Wednesday. The stock had risen after-hours and for much of the day today, but ended down 2.4 percent.

Drug stocks were the biggest drag on the Dow, with Merck down 3.7 percent. And Pfizer lost 2.2 percent.

General Motors shed 0.2 percent after a noon deadline to file objections to the plan to sell GM assets to a government-backed company passed, clearing the path for GM to exit bankruptcy protection.

Citigroup shares rose 2.7 percent after the bank named a new CFOand a new head of its banking division. The current CFO, Edward "Ned" Kelly, will become a vice chairman focused on strategy and merger activity. John Gerspach, currently controller and chief accounting officer, will succeed him as CFO. The bank also named Eugene McQuade, former head of FleetBoston Financial, as CEO of Citibank.

AIG shares tumbled 28 percent after Citigroup put out a note that said AIG equity was basically worthless. The stock had gained pre-market following news that the insurer planned to sell a unit to MetLife.

Goldman Sachs got a boost after Bank of America/Merrill Lynch raised its rating on the stock to "buy" from "neutral."

Retail stocks were mostly lower as June same-store sales disappointed.

Among the early disappointments, teen and children's stores missed their targets.

Target shares rose 3 percent after the discount retailer rang up a deeper-than-expected drop in sales but its stock rose as the discount giant said it would meet or beat on second-quarter earnings.

JCPenney shares fell 3.5 percent despite the fact that the department-store operator beat expectations and raised its outlook for second-quarter earnings.

Costco met expectations, reporting a 6-percent drop in sales for the month, as shoppers bought fewer discretionary items like cameras and mobile phones at the wholesale club. Shares fell 1.1 percent.

Wal-Mart recently decided to stop reporting monthly sales, which has made it tougher to judge the industry's performance.

Today's 30-year Treasury auction showed strength, giving stocks a final push higher.

"A lot of people went short in anticipation of a poor auction and then had to cover when the auction actually went better than everyone thought,'' Jack Ablin, chief investment officer at Harris Bank, told Reuters.

Crude oil rose, settling at $60.41, after a six-day slide.

Still to Come:

FRIDAY: Import/export prices; international trade; consumer sentiment

Send comments to cindy.perman@nbcuni.com.

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