GE declined following the earthquake news. The conglomerate has become the U.S. company most tied to the Japanese crisis because it designed the six nuclear reactors at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. GE is also a minority shareholder in NBCUniversal.
Oil pricesgained following a brief retreatafter the quake was reported, as traders absorbed news that the quake was not as strong as one on March 11. London Brent crude closed 0.3 percent higher, ending at $1.22.67 a barrel, while U.S. light crude gained 1.35 percent, to close at $110.30. Meanwhile, gold prices closed at a fresh record high of $1,458.50 an ounce.
Shares of most airline companies fell after news of the quake, including AMR , United Continental and Delta Air Lines .
Meanwhile, Boeing shares rose after the firm said it took orders for 18 commercial aircraft in the latest week.
On the tech front, Cisco shares fell lower after CEO John Chambers, acknowledged challenges remain in its core business of networking while vowing on video at a Wells Fargo technology conference to "double down." Meanwhile, Citigroup cut its price target on the networking firm to $20 from $22.
Among other leading tech stocks, small gains came from Adobe Systems and Nvidia .
Retail sales data at stores open at least a year, or same-store sales, came in better-than-expected in March. Shares of Walgreen, Costco and teen clothing retailers Hot Topic and Zumiez gained after reporting strong March sales.
But not all retailers delivered upbeat March sales, as firms such as Target and Gap disappointed.
Bed, Bath & Beyond, meanwhile, soared more than 10 percent after the home goods retailer reported a 25 percent earnings boost. In addition, Credit Suisse and Wedbush raised their price targets on the firm. And Pier 1 Imports alsojumped after the home furnishing chain delivered a 65 percent gain in fiscal fourth-quarter profits.
Rite Aid gained after the drugstore chain operator said that its quarterly loss was slightly smaller than a year earlieras its revenue stabilized after more than two years of declines.
A handful of companies declared dividend hikes. PNC Financial Services traded flat despite a 250 percent boost in its dividend. Qualcomm fell slightly despite announcing a quarterly cash dividend. Ingersoll-Rand gained after the diversified industrial company announced a 71 percent dividend increase and and stock buyback up to $2 billion.
XenoPort shares skyrocketed more than 50 percent after the FDA approved Horizant, extended-release tablets for the treatment of Restless Legs Syndrome in adults. XenoPort co-developed the product with GlaxoSmithKline .
Volume on the consolidated tape of the New York Stock Exchange was 3.9 billion, while 911 million changed hands on the NYSE floor.
In the day's economic news, initial claims for unemploymentfell 10,000 to 382,000 from an upwardly revised 392,000, the Labor Department reported. The government had reported claims last week had fallen to 388,000, and economists surveyed by Reuters had expected claims would fall to 385,000 last week. The four-week moving average of unemployment claims fell by 5,750 to 389,500.
The U.S. House of Representatives passed a stopgap spending bill to fund the government for just another week, on the condition of $12 billion in spending cuts. The White House has said it would veto the measure.
President Obama and the Democrats want legislation that would fund the government until the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30. Funding for the budget expires at midnight on Friday.
The ECB, meanwhile, raised interest rates 25 basis pointsto 1.25 percent, in response to rising inflation in the euro zone. The decision comes in the wake of Portugal’s late call Wednesday for financial aidfrom the EU.
The Bank of England, meanwhile, held interest rates at 0.5 percent on Thursday, although inflation is rising in England as well. European stocks ended lowerfollowing the news of the earthquake in Japan.
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