Stocks posted a modest gain in thin, volatile trading Thursday ahead of the monthly government jobs report at the end of the week, while worries over the looming "fiscal cliff" continued to linger.
The added 4.66 points, or 0.33 percent, to end at 1,413.94. The Nasdaq climbed 15.57 points, or 0.52 percent, to finish at 2,989.27. The CBOE Volatility Index (VIX), widely considered the best gauge of fear in the market, closed above 16.
Among key S&P sectors, techs led the gainers, while industrials slipped.
Apple briefly tumbled 3 percent at the open to hit a nine-month low before recovering losses. The tech giant logged its biggest one-day drop in four years. Still, the stock is down more than 20 percent from its all-time high of $705 in September, trading in bear market territory. Since its peak in September, Apple's market cap has shriveled by a whopping $157 billion.
Apple's chart is very close to forming a 'death cross'—where the stock's 50-day moving average falls below the 200-day moving average. Technicians usually see the sign as a cue to sell. (Read More: Apple May Fall Another 20% on 'Panic Selling')
Separately, Apple plans to move some production of its Mac computers to the U.S. from from China next year, said CEO Tim Cook.
"The market is basically doing nothing and the day before alabor report, people are reluctant to take big positions," said Brian Gendreau,market strategist with Cetera Financial. "Still, the market is holding up surprisinglywell despite the fiscal cliff, ongoing problems in Europe, and the slow-growingeconomy. There seems to be a lot of pentu-up demand for stocks."
On the economic front, jobless claims fell 25,000 to a seasonally adjusted 370,000, according to the Labor Department. Meanwhile, planned layoffs gained for the third-straight month in November, partly driven by the bankruptcy of Hostess Brands, according to a report from consultants Challenger, Gray & Christmas.
Investors will be looking ahead to Friday's government jobs report. Economists polled by Reuters expect a gain of 93,000 in payrolls and an unchanged unemployment rate of 7.9 percent in November.
"Whether the number is better or worse than expected, peoplewill be blaming Hurricane Sandy," said Gendreau.
European stock markets closed higher. The ECB held interest rates at a record low of 0.75 percent, as expected. ECB President Mario Draghi said the central bank will continue to supply euro zone banks with all the liquidity they ask for in the central bank's refinancing operations at least until July 2013.
On Wednesday afternoon, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geither said on CNBC that Republicans are "making a little bit of progress" in fiscal cliff talks but, but added the Obama administration was "absolutely" ready to go over the cliff if the GOP doesn't agree to raise tax rates on the wealthy. (Read More: Amid 'Fiscal Cliff' Stalemate, Main Street Deteriorates)
Republican House Speaker John Boehner and Obama aides have resumed talks in a sign of progress on averting the fiscal cliff.
Among earnings, Lululemon Athletica jumped after the yoga apparel maker topped earnings expectations. But current-quarter guidance fell short of Wall Street estimates.
H&R Block rallied after the tax preparer posted a smaller-than-expected loss and beat revenue estimates.
Smithfield Foods eked out a gain after the pork producer and processor topped earnings forecasts. Still, revenue was slightly lighter than expected.
announced a $2 billion stock buyback program and declared a special cash dividend of 5 cents a share. So far, more than 150 companies have announced special dividends and accelerated their payouts in the fourth quarter, ahead of next year's possible tax increase on dividends.