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U.S. equities closed slightly higher Thursday, amid surging oil prices, as investors digested fresh economic data as well as the minutes from the Federal Reserve's July meeting.
"We're likely to continue trading in a very narrow range," said Kate Warne, investment strategist at Edward Jones. "Overall, investors continue to balance when the Fed will raise rates against relatively good earnings," and other factors.
"Crude oil is having another massive day and that's preventing any big pullback," said Jeremy Klein, chief market strategist at FBN Securities.
The Dow Jones industrial average closed nearly 24 points higher, with Wal-Mart and Chevron contributing the most gains. The benchmark S&P 500 rose about 0.2 percent, with energy rising 1.78 percent. The Nasdaq composite rose about 0.2 percent and was on track to post its first eight-week winning streak since 2010.
"People are going to hesitate to sell because there's nowhere else to put your money, but because valuations are so stretched, it's going to be hard to entice new money to come in," said Bruce Bittles, chief investment strategist at Baird.
On the data front, weekly jobless claims fell 4,000 to 262,000, while the August Philadelphia Fed business index came in line with expectations. Leading indicators rose 0.4 percent last month, slightly more than expected.
"There isn't a lot of market-moving news, except for the Fed minutes," said Ernie Cecilia, CIO at Bryn Mawr Trust. He also said the minutes "create uncertainty within the Fed, which the market is interpreting as no action from the Fed."
Meanwhile, New York Fed President William Dudley said in a Thursday speech the past two jobs reports "helped allay concerns that arose earlier this year that job growth was beginning to stall. Indeed, these reports reinforce my view that labor market conditions continue to improve."
On Wednesday, minutes released from the Fed's last meeting showed the central bank's policymakers were divided, concerned about inflation and split over the U.S. economy's strength.
"To be fair, the Fed has repeatedly said it would be dependent on the data and to see a mixed Fed amid mixed data makes sense, to an extent," Edward Jones' Warne said.
Stocks eked out gains following the minutes' release on Wednesday, having traded lower for most of the session.
"It's interesting because, when the minutes came out, the reaction was negative, but about 10 minutes later the sentiment changed and stocks and bonds rose," said Randy Frederick, managing Director of trading and derivatives at Charles Schwab.
Frederick also said he expects the stock market to continue trading sideways. "I think the market is topping a bit. That's not to say we're headed for a big downturn; I just don't any catalyst."
U.S. equities have recently notched record highs despite trading in a very narrow range amid low volume and low volatility. In fact, Wednesday's session market the 28th straight day the S&P did not move at least 1 percent — in either direction — on a closing basis.
The CBOE Volatility Index (VIX), widely considered the best gauge of fear in the market, traded lower, near 11.4.
Investors also digested quarterly results from Dow component Wal-Mart, which reported better-than-expected earnings and revenue and raised its full-year guidance. Wal-Mart shares rose 1.88 percent in Thursday trade.
In other corporate news, Caterpillar, another Dow component, saw its shares slide 1.22 percent after reporting a decline in July retail machine sale.
U.S. Treasurys were mixed Thursday, with the two-year note yield holding near 0.70 percent and the benchmark 10-year yield around 1.53 percent. The dollar fell 0.67 percent against a basket of currencies, with the euro around $1.135 and the yen below the key 100 mark.
The Dow Jones industrial average rose 23.76 points, or 0.13 percent to end at 18,597.7, with Wal-Mart leading advancers and Caterpillar the greatest laggard.
The closed 4.8 points higher, or 0.22 percent, at 2,187.02, with energy leading seven sectors higher and telecommunications the biggest laggard.
The Nasdaq rose 11.49 points, or 0.22 percent, to close at 5,240.15.
About three stocks advanced for every decliner at the New York Stock Exchange, with an exchange volume of 744.54 million and a composite volume of 3.225 billion at the close.
Gold futures for December delivery settled at $1,357.20 per ounce, up $8.40.
On tap this week:
*Planner subject to change.
Earnings: Applied Materials, Gap, Ross Stores, Hormel Foods, Mentor Graphics, Nestle
4 p.m. San Francisco Fed President John Williams
Earnings: Deere, Estee Lauder, Foot Locker, Madison Square Garden, The Buckle