* Trading expected to be light in final day of the year
* Energy shares slump as crude oil weakens again
* Jobless claims rise more than expected in latest week
* Indexes up: Dow 0.2 pct, S&P 0.1 pct, Nasdaq 0.4 pct (Updates to midday trading)
By Ryan Vlastelica
NEW YORK, Dec 31 (Reuters) - U.S. stocks were modestly higher on Wednesday, putting major indexes on track to end 2014 near record levels, though energy shares once again fell alongside crude oil prices.
While the market’s seasonal trend of modest moves and low volume continued, there was heavier action in the energy space. Crude oil lost 2.2 percent, the fourth drop of at least 2 percent in the past five sessions, putting the commodity at its lowest since May 2009.
The S&P Energy index fell 0.5 percent as the biggest decliner of the day. It is also the year’s worst performer, off 9.3 percent. Among the day’s biggest losers, Newfield Exploration fell 1.2 percent to $26.95 while Noble Corp was off 2.2 percent at $16.67.
The broader move higher confirmed Wall Street’s recent upward bias. The S&P 500 has risen in seven of the past nine sessions, hitting a series of intraday and closing records. The stock market will be closed Thursday for the New Year’s holiday.
“The trend isn’t broken and you need to go with it until it breaks,” said Michael Matousek, head trader at U.S. Global Investors Inc in San Antonio.
“I don’t see anything coming up that could really break the fundamental picture out there. We could see pullbacks, which you should buy on, but I don’t see a downtrend.”
NephroGenex Inc soared 240 percent to $15.77 a day after it said its lead drug was found to be safe in patients with diabetic nephropathy in a cardiac safety study. More than 4.2 million shares traded, by far the stock’s most active day.
Jobless claims rose more than expected in the latest week, snapping four straight weeks of declines, though the rise was not enough to change views of sustained strength in the labor market.
Separately, the pace of business activity in the U.S. Midwest slowed more than expected in December, while pending home sales rose 0.8 percent in November, stronger than forecast.
At 11:44 a.m. (1644 GMT) the Dow Jones industrial average rose 42.78 points, or 0.24 percent, to 18,025.85, the S&P 500 gained 2.37 points, or 0.11 percent, to 2,082.72 and the Nasdaq Composite added 17.94 points, or 0.38 percent, to 4,795.38. With the day’s move, the S&P is 0.4 percent below its record close.
For the year, the Dow is up 8.7 percent, its sixth straight annual gain, the S&P is up 12.7 percent, and the Nasdaq up 14.8 percent, The best-performing S&P component in 2014 is Southwest Airlines Co up 127.8 percent, while the worst is Transocean Ltd, down 63 percent.
Advancing issues outnumbered declining ones on the NYSE 1,813 to 1,138, for a 1.59-to-1 ratio; on the Nasdaq, 1,664 issues rose and 970 fell for a 1.72-to-1 ratio favoring advancers.
The S&P 500 was posting 36 new 52-week highs and 6 new lows; the Nasdaq Composite was recording 102 new highs and 18 new lows. (Editing by Nick Zieminski)