Stocks Close Flat Ahead of Jobs Report

Stocks closed little-changed ahead of Friday's jobs report after ringing in the new year with a record decline.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average finished with a slight gain, while the Nasdaq and S&P 500 had minor declines. The performance came after the Dow posted its worst-ever start to a new year Wednesday.

On Friday, the government will report on December job growth, a widely watched economic indicator. Before the bell on Thursday, other jobs data showed moderate growthand moved the market upward, with investors taking comfort that the economy may not be heading for recession soon.

Also, new orders at factories surged a bigger-than-expected 1.5 percent in November on a big rise in orders for nondurable goods, the government said. The numbers came a day after a private group's report indicated a contraction in the manufacturing industry.

"Those manufacturing numbers yesterday were significantly poor. Today's numbers were in-line," said Anthony Conroy, head trader for BNY ConvergEx, an affiliate of the Bank of New York. "We didn't want to take a second day of trading like yesterday. People say, 'so goes the first week of January, so goes the rest of the year."'

Weak car sales dataweighed on markets.

Analysts predict that General Motors' sales fell 6 percent to 13 percent last month. GM Chief Executive Rick Wagoner said the No. 1 US automaker expects overall auto sales to hold roughly flat in 2008 with the depressed levels of 2007 even as global sales hit a new high.

Ford's sales fell 9.2 percent while Chrysler's sales were seen down about 8 percent, according to a Reuters survey.

In early earnings reports, agricultural giant Monsanto said its quarterly profit nearly tripled, helped by strength in its corn seed and herbicide businesses. The results easily beat already-optimistic estimates of 35 cents per share.

In drug store earnings, Rite Aid shares fell sharply as the drug store chain posted a 0.5 percent decline in stores open at least a year, while CVS Caremark dropped even though it posted a 1.8 percent increase in sales at drugstores open at least a year.

Computer chip makers continued to get battered a day after an analyst downgraded the group. Shares were off at Dow component Intel as well as at Advanced Micro Devices, Texas Instruments and Infineon.

Oil Tops $100 -- For a Moment

Oil retreated after momentarily rising above $100 for the first time when a report showed crude reserves fell by 4 million barrels, more than double estimates, but gasoline reserves were up 1.9 million barrels.

Superior Energy Services was among the leading gainers of the day after Bear Stearns raised its guidance for the Harveny, La.-based oil services contractor.

The subprime mortgage collapse also was in the news, with State Street , the world's largest institutional money manager, saying it will take a $279 million fourth-quarter chargeafter making bad bets on subprime mortgages and other debt, and said it replaced its investment management chief.

In a related development, the Mortgage Bankers Association said mortgage applications fellfor the third straight week to the lowest level since July 2006 even as borrowing costs declined. Also, demand for refinancing loans dropped to the lowest since December 2006.

Intel and GM were the two biggest losers among Dow bluechips, while American International Group and Citigroup helped push industrials to the plus side.