A late-day slide pulled stocks lower on Thursday as investors grew skittish ahead of the government's report on November unemployment. Stocks began falling in the final half-hour of trading and the drop intensified in the final 20 minutes. Worries about the economy had been dogging investors Thursday following a weak snapshot of the service industry.
The government releases November unemployment figures Friday. For the day, the Dow Jones industrials are down 87 at 10,366. The Standard & Poor's 500 index down 9 at 1,100. The Nasdaq composite index is down 12 at 2,173. Two stocks fell for every one that rose on the New York Stock Exchange. Volume totaled 1.1 billion compared with 1 billion Wednesday.
Before the end-of-day downturn, major stock indicators zigzagged in a tight range Thursday after the Institute for Supply Management said its index of activity in the service industry fell to 48.7 in November from 50.6 in October. That was below what analysts had been expecting and signaled contraction.
The market drew some support from a Labor Department report that new claims for unemployment benefits fell unexpectedly for the fifth straight week.
The number of laid-off workers seeking unemployment benefits fell by 5,000 last week to 457,000, in a hopeful sign of improvement in the job market. Economists had expected an increase, according to a survey by Thomson Reuters. The report came a day ahead of the government's November unemployment figures.
Meanwhile, the technology-heavy Nasdaq composite index got a boost from Comcast Corp., which said it agreed to buy a majority stake in NBC Universal for $13.75 billion. The long-awaited deal gives the nation's largest cable TV operator control of the TV network as well as cable channels and a major movie studio.
Tim Knepp, chief investment officer of Genworth Financial Asset Management, said it wasn't surprising to see the market pause ahead of Friday's jobs report. There is broad agreement that a recovery in jobs is crucial for the economy to continue growing. Economists expect that employers cut 130,000 jobs last month and that the unemployment rate remained flat at 10.2 percent.
"It's understandable that the market would tread water at this point," he said. "Job creation is going to be the key to sustaining any kind of rally."
Bond prices fell, pushing yields higher. The yield on the benchmark 10-year Treasury note rose to 3.39 percent from 3.32 percent late Wednesday.
The dollar mostly rose against other major currencies, while gold rose.
Crude oil fell 14 cents to settle at $76.46 on the New York Mercantile Exchange.
Burt White, chief investment officer at LPL Financial in Boston, said the occasional downbeat economic reports aren't likely to derail the market as investors continue to see longer-term improvements in the economy.
"We do hit some speed bumps on the road and today we hit a couple, especially with ISM, but we're still pretty bullish that stocks have a way to go," he said.
The day's trading was subdued as Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke appeared on Capitol Hill as he seeks to win confirmation for a second four-year term. Bernanke told the Senate Banking Committee that he would work with lawmakers to reshape the country's financial regulatory setup as well as to rein in supports for the economy as a recovery takes hold.
Shares of Comcast rose $1.13, or 8%, to $15.31. General Electric Co., NBC's parent since 1986, rose 7 cents to $16.14.
Bank of America rose 45 cents, or 2.9%, to $16.10 after announcing late Wednesday it would repay its $45 billion in government bailout money.
Falling stocks narrowly outpaced those that rose on the New York Stock Exchange, where volume came to 826.7 million shares compared with 790.7 million shares traded Wednesday.
Overseas, Britain's FTSE 100 fell 0.3%, while Germany's DAX index fell 0.2%, and France's CAC-40 rose 0.1%. Japan's Nikkei stock average rose 3.8 percent.
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