Stocks limped into the close Thursday, eking out the first positive day of the week as traders shifted their focus from Europe's problems and onto some positive U.S. economic news.
Major averages finished the day modestly positive after surging by as much as 1 percent earlier. Defensive stocks such as staples, health care and utilities were most popular, while tech and energy lagged.
Weekly initial jobless claimshit a three and a half year low and economic bellwether FedEx reported earnings that were better than expected.
Also the Philadelphia Fed’s Business Outlook for December surprised sharply to the upside with a reading of 10.3 against expectations of a 4. A decline in industrial production and a surprising rise in producer prices tempered the otherwise positive news.
Economists, though, were cautious about how bright a picture the data painted.
"The steady decline in the number of initial claims for unemployment insurance continues to be a bright spot in the economic data picture," Nomura economist Jeffrey Greenberg said. "Jobless claims only inform us about one side of the job growth equation, jobs lost, and the data suggest cuts have not picked up. What the report does not include, namely jobs being added, remains lackluster."
Elsewhere, retail stocks gained 1 percent after the industry's trade group TheNational Retail Federationraised its forecast for holiday sales. The group now sees holiday sales up 3.8 percent to a record $469.1 billion, higher than its previous forecast of 2.8 percent growth, which it issued earlier this year.
Also boding well for retailers, FedEx said its earnings topped estimates due to strong growth in online shopping, which boosted demand for FedEx shipping services. FedEx , which also backed its forecast for fiscal 2012, saw its shares up sharply.
Eight of 10 Standard & Poor's 500sectors were positive, while gainers beat losers 3 to 1 on the Dow Jones industrials. Merck and Travelers led the bluechips, while Alcoa , American Express and IBM, which announced the acquisition of procurement and telecom expense management vendor Emptoris, were the biggest laggards.