NEW YORK The Standard & Poor's 500 extended its rally to a fifth day on Thursday, again eking out a tiny gain as lingering expectations for economic stimulus from central banks lent support to a market lacking new catalysts.
While the S&P 500 has chalked up three-month highs every day this week, the index has climbed only 0.6 percent over the past three sessions - an indication that investors aren't prepared to make aggressive bets despite better-than-expected jobless claims and U.S. trade data.
The Nasdaq outperformed the other two major U.S. stock indexes, led by Cisco Systems Inc after Goldman Sachs added the company to its conviction buy list and Piper Jaffray upgraded it to "overweight." Cisco rose 3.2 percent to $17.70 and was the Dow's biggest percentage gainer.
Material stocks also advanced after James River Coal Co said the market for power-generating coal was showing signs of a recovery following massive industry-wide cutbacks in production. The stock surged 13 percent to $2.52 while peer company Arch Coal Inc jumped 7.1 percent to $7.42. An S&P materials index rose 0.5 percent.
The three major U.S. stock indexes seesawed throughout the morning, with the S&P 500 mostly hovering above 1,400 in light trade as investors bet central banks would soon act to support a global recovery that has shown signs of stalling.
"It's almost eerie how flat the market has been. But while there's a risk of our becoming overbought, I don't see why we'd see a decline of any magnitude until we hear what central banks will do," said Mark Luschini, chief investment strategist at Janney Montgomery Scott in Philadelphia.
The Dow Jones industrial average slipped 10.45 points, or 0.08 percent, to 13,165.19 at the close. But the Standard & Poor's 500 Index inched up 0.58 of a point, or 0.04 percent, to 1,402.80. The Nasdaq Composite Index gained 7.39 points, or 0.25 percent, to close at 3,018.64.
Markets held on despite a raft of weak Chinese economic data. Annual growth in factory output slowed to its lowest in more than three years in July while annual consumer price inflation hit a 30-month low.
"This news is disappointing, but it only emboldens investors that we'll be rescued by central banks somewhere," said Luschini, who helps oversee $54 billion in assets.
Data showed the number of Americans filing new claims for jobless benefits fell last week while the U.S. trade deficit in June was the smallest in 1-1/2 years, hopeful signs for the struggling economy.
Beauty products maker Elizabeth Arden forecast 2013 profit above estimates on stronger sales and its shares jumped 13 percent to $44.02.
Of the 445 companies in the S&P 500 that have reported second-quarter earnings through Thursday morning, 68 percent have reported earnings above analysts' expectations, in line with the average over the last four quarters.
Shares of Robbins & Myers soared 27.4 percent to $59.63 after National Oilwell Varco said it would buy the company for $2.54 billion in cash. Varco shares added 0.8 percent to $76.98.
E*Trade Financial Corp gained 6.9 percent to $8.57 after it replaced its chief executive officer, Steven Freiberg, and said its board had formed a committee to find a permanent replacement.
Volume was light, with about 5.41 billion shares traded on the New York Stock Exchange, the American Stock Exchange and Nasdaq, well below last year's daily average of 7.84 billion.
About 52.5 percent of companies traded on the New York Stock Exchange closed higher, while 53 percent of Nasdaq-listed shares gained for the day.
(Editing by Jan Paschal)