NEW YORK – Stocks firmed on Friday after a jobs report showed the pace of hiring met expectations by easing slightly in December, but gave indications of momentum in the labor market recovery.
The market also reacted modestly to data from the Institute for Supply Management, which showed the U.S. service sector grew at its fastest pace in 10 months in December, boosted by a rise in new orders.
"The jobs number today was somewhat benign, it was pretty close to what estimates were, so there wasn't much to draw out volatility from that report," said Gordon Charlop, managing director at Rosenblatt Securities in New York.
"I get the sense we're just sort of going to digest the events of earlier this week," he said, referring to the "fiscal cliff" deal in Washington that averted a possible recession.
The S&P saw its largest gain in over a year to start 2013 on Wednesday, following the agreement struck late Tuesday.
The Labor Department said payrolls outside the farming sector grew 155,000 last month, slightly below November's level. Gains in employment were distributed broadly throughout the economy, from manufacturing and construction to healthcare.
Shares of Apple Inc dropped 2.9 percent to $526.20, continuing its downward path of recent months and pressuring the Nasdaq.
Adding to concerns about the iPhone maker's ability to produce more innovative products going forward, rival Samsung Electronics Co Ltd <005930.KS> is expected to widen its lead over Apple in global smartphone sales this year with 35 percent growth, propped up by a broad product lineup, according to market researcher Strategy Analytics.
The Dow Jones industrial average was up 3.99 points, or 0.03 percent, at 13,395.35. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index gained 2.38 points, or 0.16 percent, at 1,461.75. The Nasdaq Composite Index dropped 3.47 points, or 0.11 percent, at 3,097.10.
New orders received by U.S. factories were flat in November, missing expectations as demand for aircraft sank sharply, although a gauge of business spending plans gave a positive sign for the economy.
The lackluster economic growth indicated by the jobs data did not make a dent in the still-high U.S. unemployment rate, but it calmed fears about the possibility of the U.S. Federal Reserve ending its highly stimulative monetary policy.
Concerns about the endurance of the Fed's stimulus program prompted investors to pull back from the market Thursday after a two-day rally.
Minutes from the Fed's December policy meeting, released Thursday, showed Fed officials were increasingly worried about the risks of asset purchases to financial markets, though they looked set to continue with the open-ended stimulus program for now.
Some policymakers thought asset buying should be slowed or stopped before the end of 2013 while others highlighted the need for further stimulus. The Fed's policy of easy credit has helped push the S&P 500 to a 13.4 percent gain in 2012. Ending that policy would remove an incentive for investors to purchase riskier assets like stocks.
The S&P Energy sector index rose again, up 0.7 percent, led by a 3.5 percent gain in shares of Chesapeake Energy .
Eli Lilly and Co stock rose 3.9 percent to $51.68 after the pharmaceuticals maker said it expects its 2013 earnings to increase to $3.75 to $3.90 per share excluding items from $3.30 to $3.40 per share in 2012.
Shares of Mosaic Co gained 2.6 percent to $58.25 on the fertilizer producer's announcement that its quarterly operating profit fell 30 percent as international distributors delayed buying potash and phosphate to avert the price risk associated with the company's negotiations with China and India.
(Additional reporting by Angela Moon; Editing by Bernadette Baum and Nick Zieminski)