The Dow Jones industrial average (^DJI) rose 38 points, or 0.2 percent, to 15,311, the Standard & Poor's 500 index (^GPSC) edged up 3 points, or 0.2 percent, to 1,695 and the Nasdaq composite index (^IXIC) added 20 points, or 0.5 percent, to 3,781.
Though stocks finished higher, gains were held back by investor concern about the ongoing stalemate in Washington over the nation's budget and debt ceiling. Federal agency shutdowns could begin next Tuesday, when the fiscal year begins, threatening the nation's fledgling recovery -- unless Congress passes a stopgap bill.
Growth-sensitive retail stocks were among the best performers in the 10 industry groups that make up the S&P 500 index. The group got a lift from the troubled department store owner J.C. Penney (JCP), which said in a statement Thursday that it was pleased with its turnaround efforts. The company's stock rose 2.9 percent to $10.42.
In a promising sign for the labor market, the number of Americans filing new claims for jobless benefits fell last week to a near six-year low. Other data showed the U.S. government left its estimate for economic growth in the second quarter unchanged at 2.5 percent.
In other economic news, fewer Americans signed contracts to buy previously owned homes in August for the third straight month, as an index for pending sales of existing homes declined 1.6 percent. The drop could mean higher mortgage rates are starting to deter some buyers.
In commodities news, benchmark U.S. crude gained 28 cents to $102.94 a barrel, while gold lost $11.80 to end at $1,324.10.
In IPO news, shares of cloud-computing company Covisint (COVS) soared 25.1 percent to $12.51 in its first day of trading on the Nasdaq, while shares of Premier Inc. (PINC) climbed more than 13 percent to $30.55. The Charlotte, N.C., company collects and analyzes clinical and financial data for health care facilities.
More Stocks in the News:
- Nike (NKE) reported its first-quarter net income rose 38 percent, thanks to strong demand for Nike branded items, and revenue growth in every region except China. The report, which came after the close of trading, was Nike's first earnings report as a member of the blue-chip Dow Jones industrial average. Shares ended Thursday's session up 2.1 percent to $70.35.
- Air Products & Chemicals (APD) chief executive John McGlade will retire next year and the industrial gas producer appointed three new independent directors, avoiding a fight over board membership with activist investor Bill Ackman. Air Products shares rose as much as 6.9 percent, but ended the day at $109.82, up 2.3 percent.
- Bed Bath and Beyond (BBBY) rose 4.5 percent to $77.54 a day after it reported a jump in second-quarter profit as the U.S. housing market recovery spurred demand for its products.
- Hertz Global (HTZ) shares dropped more than 16 percent to $21.63 after the car rental company cut its full-year forecast.
- Eli Lilly & Co. (LLY) fell 3 percent to $51.03 after its experimental cancer drug failed to improve survival among breast cancer patients without their cancer worsening in a late-stage trial.
- EBay (EBAY) said it would buy payments provider Braintree for about $800 million in cash to add to its PayPal business. Braintree will continue to operate as a separate service within PayPal led by Braintree chief executive Bill Ready, eBay said. EBay closed up 4.5 percent at $56.65.
- Caesars Entertainment (CZR) fell 5.2 percent to $19.84 after the company said late Wednesday that it plans to sell up to 11.5 million of its shares in a public offering.
- Cracker Barrel Old Country Store (CBRL) recommended that shareholders vote against a $20 special dividend urged by activist investor Biglari Holdings. The restaurant chain said paying the special dividend would cost more than $475 million and could hurt its balance sheet. It pays a 75-cent quarterly dividend. Shares added $1.53 to $103.90 in Thursday trading.
- Shares of Jabil Circuit (JBL) tumbled 9.9 percent to $21.62 after the provider of electronics-manufacturing services gave a weaker-than-expected outlook for the current quarter, hurt by its BlackBerry business. The stock has traded in the 52-week range of $16.39 to $24.32.
- The Commerce Department releases personal income and spending for August at 8:30 a.m. Eastern time.
- The University of Michigan releases its final estimate for consumer sentiment in September at around 10 a.m.
- Smartphone maker BlackBerry (BBRY) is due to report quarterly corporate earnings.