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US stocks close mostly flat ahead of jobs report

Stocks closed mostly flat on Thursday, despite a rise in oil prices, as Wall Street looked ahead for Friday's jobs report.

"We've had some unusual volatility ... but the underlying trend has been lower," said Scott Brown, chief economist at Raymond James, who expects the U.S. economy to have added about 150,000 jobs last month. The slowing trend "reflects big firms being more cautious hiring after Brexit and ahead of the election."

The Dow Jones industrial average fell less than 5 points lower, with Walt Disney and Home Depot contributing the most losses. The S&P 500 and the Nasdaq closed marginally higher.

U.S. oil settled 2.7 percent higher at $41.93 a barrel, a day after surging more than 3 percent amid a drawdown in gasoline inventories.

"Today investors are just treading water," said Kim Forrest, senior equity strategist at Fort Pitt Capital. "I think we're looking for the jobs report to give us more [economic] clarity."

"Investors are keeping their powder dry for tomorrow to either buy or sell," she said. Economists polled by Reuters forecast the U.S. economy added 175,000 jobs last month.

Investors also digest the Bank of England's first rate cut since 2009.

"It was a widely anticipated move," said Peter Cardillo, chief market economist at First Standard Financial. "They're afraid of a recession."

The BOE also increased its government bond-buying program by £60 billion to £435 billion. "QE is not a sign of strength; it's a sign of weakness," Cardillo said.

Traders on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.
Brendan McDermid | Reuters
Traders on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.

U.S. futures briefly jumped after the BOE's announcement before holding near the flatline.

"This is yet another example of when the data deteriorates and the bears come out growling, a central bank somewhere in the world will print. The bears growl even louder and are either forced to become reluctant bulls, or they miss out on the rallies," Nick Raich, CEO of The Earnings Scout, said in a note to clients.

The British pound, on the other hand, saw its biggest falls since the aftermath of June's Brexit vote, trading about 1.46 percent lower versus the dollar, near $1.312. The dollar held about 0.2 percent higher against a basket of currencies, with the euro near $1.113 and the yen around 101.2.

"By looking at the decision of the policy members, it appears that they are very dovish and it is likely that there will be more interest rate cuts in the coming months. The bank clearly wants to use the monetary policy to combat the Brexit woes and it is committed to do whatever it takes. But, most traders are wary of the fact that quantitative easing has reached its limit and the bank may not be able to achieve its goal by using this," Naeem Aslam, chief market analyst at Think Markets, said in a Thursday note to clients.

"When we look at sterling it has dropped off the cliff as short positions were substantially high before the decision and today's verdict has just fuel the fire," he said.

Investors also digested U.S. economic data, as weekly jobless claims came in slightly above expectations. U.S. factory orders for June fell 1.5 percent, less than expected.

"Bottom line, ahead of tomorrow's July payroll report, the pace of firing's remains modest for the reasons we've known for a while. And we've learned too that a benign pace of firing's doesn't contradict a slowing rate of job growth," said Peter Boockvar, chief market analyst at The Lindsey Group.

Meanwhile, earnings season in the U.S. continued to wind down, as Viacom, Teva Pharmaceuticals and Kellog, among others, posted quarterly results. Tesla Motors also posted quarterly results Wednesday after the bell, falling short of estimates on both the top and bottom line.

Treasurys rose broadly, with the two-year note yield trading near 0.64 percent and the benchmark 10-year yield holding around 1.51 percent.

European equity markets rose broadly, with the FTSE 100 gaining about 1.6 percent and the German Dax advancing 0.57 percent. Asian shares rose overnight, with the Nikkei 225 gaining 1.07 percent and the Shanghai composite rising 0.13 percent.

Symbol
Name
Price
 
Change
%Change
DJIA
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S&P 500
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NASDAQ
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The Dow Jones industrial average closed 2.95 points lower, or 0.02 percent, to 18,352.05, with Disney leading decliners and Visa the top advancer.

The S&P 500 closed 0.46 points higher, or 0.02 percent, at 2,164.25, with information technology leading four sectors higher and financials lagging.

The Nasdaq rose 6.51 points, or 0.13 percent, to close at 5,166.25.

The CBOE Volatility Index (VIX), widely considered the best gauge of fear in the market, traded lower, near 12.5.

About four stocks advanced for every three decliners at the New York Stock Exchange, with an exchange volume of 802.73 million and a composite volume of 3.451 billion at the close.

Gold futures for December delivery settled $2.70 higher at $1,367.40 per ounce.

—Reuters contributed to this report.

On tap this week:

*Planner subject to change.

Thursday

Earnings: Priceline, Activision Blizzard, EOG Resources, Kraft Heinz, LinkedIn, Mohawk, Motorola Solutions, Symantec, El Pollo Loco, FireEye, Lions Gate, Noodles & Co., Take Two Interactive, TrueCar, Weight Watchers, Zillow, Zynga

Friday

Earnings: Weyerhaeuser, Allianz, Virgin America, Buckeye Partners, Liberty Interactive

8:30 a.m. Employment report; international trade

3 p.m. Consumer credit