Stocks finished narrowly mixed in a quiet session Thursday as investors took a breather following a sharp rally in the previous session and ahead of the crucial government non-farm payroll figure due Friday morning.
The Dow Jones Industrial Average slipped 25.65 points, or 0.21 percent, to close at 12,020.03, snapping a three-day winning streak. The blue-chip index is still in the black for 2011 and is on pace for its biggest weekly percentage gain since July 2009.
Alcoa and Travelers led the Dow laggards, while Boeing gained.
The S&P 500 shaved 2.37 points, or 0.19 percent, to finish at 1,244.59. The Nasdaq eked out 5.86 points, or 0.22 percent, to end at 2,626.20.
The CBOE Volatility Index, widely considered the best gauge of fear in the market, was finished below 28.
Among key S&P sectors, financials ended lower, while techs logged small gains.
Financials eased off their worst levels but still finished modestly lower after Massachusetts attorney general filed a lawsuit against five major banks including BofA, Wells Fargo , JPMorgan and Citigroup , accusing them of deceptive foreclosure practices, such as robo-signing. (Watch: Will Bank Stocks Bounce?)
The number of weekly jobless claims jumped unexpectedly last week to a seasonally adjusted 402,000, according to the Labor Department, edging above 400,000 for the first time in over a month.
The jobless claims news comes ahead of an important government employment report on Friday. The monthly nonfarm payroll is expected to show a gain of 122,000 in November and a rise in private payrolls of 140,000. (Read More:November Jobs Report Could Hold Positive Surprise)
“We seem to be taking a bit of a pause to catch our breath ahead of the big jobs number,” said Ryan Detrick, senior technical strategist with Schaeffer's Investment Research. “All in all, it’s been two steps forward, one step back on the jobs front…but for tomorrow’s employment data, we would be in the better-than-expected camp as we see that things have been improving across the board.”
Detrick noted that December is known to be one of the strongest months for equities and should historical trends hold, investors should anticipate a rally in the next few weeks.
“If we get more positive [economic] news and nothing particularly negative from Europe, the potential for a December rally is very real…there’s still a lot of money on the sidelines,” he explained, adding that the rally could boost the S&P near 1,350 by the first quarter of 2012.