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After ending in the red for six days in a row, the blue chips drifted higher on Thursday as traders continued keeping a close eye on Europe and mulled a slew of economic data.
As of 3:10 p.m. ET, the Dow Jones Industrial Average climbed 34.9 points, or 0.26%, to 12868, the S&P 500 gained 4.9 points, or 0.36%, to 1359 and the Nasdaq Composite rose 0.65 point, or 0.03%, to 2936.
The health-care and utility sectors were leading the gains on the day. However, tumbling shares of Cisco Systems (NASDAQ:CSCO) weighed heavily on the technology sector after the technology bellwether posted a weak outlook. Indeed, the Nasdaq was in the red on the day and the company's fall yanked 12 points off the Dow's overall performance. The materials sector struggled as well.
So far, this week's action has been driven by concerns about political turmoil in Europe. Two countries of particular concern have been Greece and Spain. The former has been struggling to form a unity government, and it still remains unclear whether any government will be able to reach the necessary fiscal mandates to secure much-needed rescue aid.
Spain was forced to essentially nationalize its fourth-largest bank, Bankia, in a sign of the stress the financial system there is taking. Stocks there hit the lowest level since 2003 on Wednesday, before rebounding with a big rally on Thursday. The country is also seeing its borrowing costs hover about the painful 6% level.
The focus is expected to shift back to some extent to economic data on the day.
The Commerce Department reported the U.S. trade deficit rose to $51.8 billion in March from a downwardly-revised $45.4 billion in February. Economists were expecting the deficit to rise to $50 billion from a previously reported $46 billion. Exports climbed 2.9%, but that gain was counteracted by a 5.2% jump in imports. On an absolute level, both exports and imports hit all-time highs.
The gap, which represents the difference between exports and imports, will figure directly into measure of first-quarter gross domestic product and are a key indicator of the competitiveness of the world's biggest economy.
Separately, new claims for unemployment benefits fell to 367,000 last week from an upwardly-revised 368,000 the week prior, according to the Labor Department. Economists were expecting claims to rise to 369,000 from an initially reported 365,000.
This is the first major report on the jobs market since a disappointing April jobs report released last Friday that showed the U.S. economy adding considerably fewer jobs than expected.
China revealed that its trade surplus grew to $18.4 billion in April from $5.4 billion in March. Economists expected a reading of $10.4 billion. The country saw its exports rise by a considerably smaller margin than expected, coupled with essentially no import growth.
"Slowing exports suggested that the Chinese economy is feeling the effects of flagging demand in its main external markets, while the sharp fall in import growth suggested slowing investment within China," Gavan Nolan, director of credit research at Markit in London wrote in an e-mail.
Concerns that the world's No. 2 economy is slowing down were counteracted to some extent by hopes that the data would prompt Bejing to take action to boost the economy: "From a policy perspective, the set of weak trade data reinforces our view that policymakers’ priorities should lie in promoting growth," analysts at Nomura wrote in a research note.
In energy markets, crude oil prices ended in the green for the first time in seven days. Futures traded in New York gained 27 cents, or 0.28%, to $97.08 a barrel. Wholesale New York harbor gasoline slipped 0.46% to $3.01 a gallon.
In metals, gold rose $1.30, or 0.08%, to $1,596 a troy ounce.
Eurozone blue chips climbed 0.98%, the English FTSE 100 rose 0.25% to 5544 and the German DAX gained 0.66% to 6518.
In Asia, the Japanese Nikkei 225 slumped 0.39% to 9010 and the Chinese Hang Seng shed 0.51% to 20227.