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Stocks Fluctuate; Materials Gain; Intel Falls

Stocks fluctuated Thursday after mixed economic news, including weak factory orders, but remained on track to post the best quarterly results in more than a decade.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average was slightly lower after bouncing higher and lower throughout the sessision, following rallies the past two sessions.The blue-chip index had gained 6.68 percent for the first quarter through the close on Wednesday, the best result since 1998.

Among Dow components, Intel and Home Depot slumped, while Travelers , United Technologies gained.

The S&P 500, which is also on pace to post the best quarterly performance since 1998, and the Nasdaq both traded flat to lower, also after moving in and out of positive territory. The CBOE Volatility Index, widely considered the best gauge of fear in the market, rose above 17.

Among key S&P 500 sectors, materials and energy rose, while consumerdiscretionary and financials fell.

Orders to U.S. factoriesfell 0.1 percent in February, dragged down by transportatoin, the Commerce Department reported. Orders had risen 3.3 percent in January.

Initial claims for unemployment fell to a seasonally-adjusted 388,000 for the week ended March 26, from a revised 394,000 the week before, the Labor Department reported. Claims last week were reported at 382,000.

Also, the Chicago Purchasing Managers Index showed the pace of business activity in the Midwest slipped in March.

Investors remain focused unrest in the Middle East and Japan’s nuclear crisis, but appear to remain confident in the global economic recovery as stocks keep rising. The market is poised to post the best quarterly result since 1998.

Rebels were still fighting for control of the east Libyan town of Brega on Thursday amid ongoing discussion as to whether Western forces should arm rebels in Libya, Reuters reported.

The situation also remained tense in Bahrain, but the military there has made it clear it will not tolerate any more public demonstrations. Meanwhile in Syria, President Bashar al-Assad refused to meet protesters’ demands.

Oil prices rose sharply on Thursday. U.S. light sweet crude moved above $105 a barrel and London Brent crude gained more than $116.

Energy stocks rose broadly across producers, services, coal and natural companies, as oil prices gained. Hess , Consol Energyand Occidental Petroleum were among companies leading the sector higher.

The market was also focused on Wednesday's surprise news that potential Warren Buffett successor David Sokol unexpectedly resigned from Berkshire Hathaway. In a press release, Berkshire said Sokol bought shares of Lubrizol before recommending the company to Buffett. Sokol told CNBC Thursday morningthat in retrospect, he wouldn't have told Buffett about Lubrizol, but he still would have bought shares in the specialty chemical company.

Berkshire's less expensive "B" shares fell less than 2 percent.

Tesla jumped after reports that Morgan Stanley has upgraded the automaker's price target to $70 a share. Tesla's stock ended trading on Wednesday at about $27 a share.

Microsoft traded flat after news the tech giant filed a formal complaint against Google with antitrust regulators in the European Union, saying Google is preventing competition in the business of Internet search. Microsoft has been the target of antitrust cases in the U.S. and Europe. One of Microsoft's subsidiaries had filed a complaint earlier.

Elsewhere in tech news, Intel fell after FBR Capital Markets cut its earnings estimates for the first quarter for the company to 48 cents a share from 51 cents, and reduced its price target to $25 a share from $27. The brokerage is concerned about declining sales for notebooks and PCs, as tablets gain popularity.

Retail stocks slumped after Wal-Mart's CEO Bill Simon told USA Today that inflation could affect prices later this year. JCPenney, Lowe's, Office Depot and Macy's all declined.

In Europe, a first euro zone March inflation estimate released Thursday morning put inflation at 2.6 percent, the highest since October 2008. The figure will support the European Central Bank’s case for an interest rate hike this month and leave investors in other parts of the world wondering when other central banks will follow suit.

Richmond Federal Reserve President Jeffrey Lacker speaks at the Richmond Fed's fourth annual credit markets symposium at 10:30 am. The Federal Reserve’s Daniel Tarullo speaks at the same event in Charlotte at noon.

European stockswere lower in early trading, with banks among the weakest performers ahead of the publication of new Irish bank stress tests. Asian markets were mostly higher on the last day of the quarter.

This Week:

THURSDAY: Money supply; Lacker speaks, Tarullo, Lacker speak.
FRIDAY: Auto sales, nonfarm payroll report, ISM manufacturing index, construction spending; Plosser speaks.

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