Stocks wobbled Thursday after a mixed bag of economic reports.
The Dow Jones Industrial Average popped in and out of positive territory, after shedding 99.80 in the prior session.
Initial jobless claims fell more than expectedlast week, dropping by 21,000 to 554,000. But the four-week moving average, which smooths out weekly fluctuations, rose to 543,750 from 541,000, keeping the average at a 26-year high.
And factory activity in the mid-Atlantic region continued to slump but not as badly as expected.
The Philadelphia Federal Reserve Bank said its business-activity index came in at minus 32.9 for December, compared with minus 39.3 in November. Any reading below zero indicates contraction in the region's manufacturing sector. Economists had expected a drop to minus 40.0, according to a Reuters survey.
Meanwhile, leading indicators fell 0.4 percent to 99 in November, their lowest level in more than four years, the Conference Board reported.
New developments on the auto front: Merger talks are back on between General Motors and Chrysler as Cerberus Capital Management has signaled its willingness to give away part of its ownership in Chrysler, the Wall Street Journal reported.
Shares of both GM and Ford were declined.
Financial stocks were mixed as investors digested the Fed's rate cut and the latest earnings from the sector.
FedEx hit its earnings target but offered a grim outlook for 2009 and said it plans to cut costs by $1 billion.
Discover Financial Services, returned to profitability, helped by ab $863-million payment as a result of its antitrust settlement with Visa and MasterCard, but warned of mounting card-related losses as more customers fell behind on their credit-card payments.
This follows huge losses from Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanleyearlier this week.
Rite Aid posted its sixth straight quarterly lossand the drugstore chain said it expects to post a bigger loss this year as shoppers cut back.
Nike reported after the bell that its profit rose 9 percentas higher-priced products and international growth offset lower revenue in the U.S.
Asian stocks closed flat to slightly higher after Japan stepped up its warnings against the yen's rise to a 13-year high versus the U.S. dollar. Dealing with the situation may include intervening in the foreign exchange markets.
In Europe stocks were mixed, with two big merger deals called off as the economic situation worsened.
French bank BNP Paribas said its plan to buy a stake in Belgium's Fortiscould no longer proceed as plannedafter a Brussels Court suspended it. The deal was agreed in October as a way to rescue Fortis, which was severely hit by the credit crunch.
And Australia's Qantas Airways and British Airways said they called off talks for a $6.4 billion deal, which was seen as a good way to fight rising fuel prices and falling demand in the airline sector.
Meanwhile, the funds arm of Swiss bank Credit Suisseplans to quit managing U.S. money-market funds and is liquidating three funds that have about $8 billion in assets.
Still to Come:
THURSDAY: Fed's Fisher speaks; Earnings after the bell from Oracle, Palm, Research In Motion
FRIDAY: Quadruple witching
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