Dow Ekes Out a Gain; VIX Ends at 19

Stocks struggled Thursday as the dollar rose and investors remained skittish ahead of Friday's jobs report, but a pair of analyst upgrades on GE and Bank of America helped buoy the Dow and Nasdaq.

The Dow Jones Industrial Averagegained 33.18, or 0.3 percent, to close at 10,606.86. But it wasn't without a fight: The blue-chip index crossed zero 59 times during the session.

TheS&P 500 also gained 0.3 percent. The Nasdaq pared most of its losses by the closing bell, ending down about a point.

The CBOE volatility index, widely considered the best gauge of fear in the market, dropped below 19 for the first time since August 2008, but ended right around the 19 mark.

The big economic news of the day came as the Labor Department reported jobless claims last week rose by just 1,000 to 434,000, less than expected. The four-month moving average, which smoothes out volatility from the weekly numbers, hit a 16-month low.

This report puts the decline in jobless claims near their cycle lows for this recovery period, said Robert Brusca, chief economist at FAO Economics.

"[T]his recovery LOOKS ABSOLUTELY, POSITIVELY, NOTHING that is N-O-T-H-I-N-G like those two previous slow jobs recoveries after recessions in 1990 and in 2001," Brusca wrote in a morning note to clients. "The path of jobless claims points to a ROBUST period of job growth ahead — not to a sluggish one."

But investors took a wait-and-see approach ahead of Friday's jobs report, leaving stocks struggling all day.

The dollar hit a four-month highagainst the yen, sending oil and other commodity prices lower. Oil ended at $82.66 a barrel, while gold dropped to $1133.10 an ounce.

Alcoa was the biggest drag on the Dow after after Citigroup cut its rating on the stock to "hold" from "buy." The downgrade comes just four days before the aluminum giant kicks off fourth-quarter earnings reports and was based on valuation and currency headwinds.

General Electric led Dow gainers, rising 5.2 percent, after JPMorgan raised its price target on the stock to $22 from $20, saying earnings at GE Capital could be "significantly better" than expected. JPM said the stock is its top pick in the industrial group.

Bank of America was also at the top of the pack after Credit Suisse upgraded its rating on the stock to "outperform" from "neutral," saying BofA is the "cheapest" of the large-cap banks it covers.

Retailers released their December sales figures this morning, which beat expectations despite the still-cautious nature of consumers.

Sears led gainers on the the S&P and Nasdaq after the company, which doesn't usually release monthly sales figures, raised its fourth-quarter and fiscal-year forecast amid strength at its Kmart chain. Sears reported same-store sales rose 0.4 percent in December, as Kmart sales jumped 5.3 percent.

Bed Bath & Beyond jumped 7 percent as the retailer blew past forecasts and delivered a bullish full-year outlook.

Costco reported a 9-percent increase in same-store sales, beating analyst estimates of 7.9 percent, but its shares skidded.

Limited Brands also raised its fourth-quarter outlook, while teen chain Aeropostale said sales tumbled 11 percent.

Homebuilder Lennar reported its first quarterly profit in three years, sending shares up 12 percent.

Vivus shares jumped more than 10 percent after the company reported positive test results for its sleep apnea drug.

The Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas is already generating some headlines: Microsoft has unveiled a Windows-based tablet computer made by Hewlett-Packard and Sony said holiday sales beat its forecasts.

Winterizing Your Portfolio - A CNBC Special Report
Winterizing Your Portfolio - A CNBC Special Report

Texas Instruments is planning to enter the burgeoning e-reader market, according to the Wall Street Journal. It will make new processors and software for manufacturers of those increasingly popular devices.

The fight over Cadbury continued as well, with the company's stock for the first time dipping below the offer from Kraft Foods as the likelihood of a rival bidder diminishes.

The Bank of England kept its key rate steady at 0.5 percent.

Volume was slightly below average, with about 1.19 billion shares changing hands on the New York Stock Exchange. Advancers outpaced decliners, roughly 3 to 2.

Still to Come:

ALL WEEKEND: Consumer Electronics Show
FRIDAY: Jobs report; wholesale trade; Fed's Lacker speaks; consumer credit

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