Wall Street Takes a Breather Ahead of Jobs Report

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Wall Street closed out the day little changed as traders mulled corporate news and economic data, but were cautious to make bets ahead of the highly-awaited monthly employment report on tap for Friday.

Today's Markets

The Dow Jones Industrial Average slipped 11.2 points, or 0.09%, to 12705, the S&P 500 rose 1.5 points, or 0.11%, to 1326 and the Nasdaq Composite climbed 11.4 points, or 0.4%, to 2860.

On what was a relative quiet trading day, energy shares, like Chevron (NYSE:CVX) posted the strongest performance. Financials and consumer staples performed solidly as well. Meanwhile, healthcare names lagged behind after Merck (NYSE:MRK) revealed a full-year 2012 earnings forecast that was on the lower side of estimates.

New claims for unemployment benefits fell to 367,000 last week from an upwardly revised 379,000 the week prior, the Labor Department said. Economists had been expecting claims to fall to 375,000 from an initial reading of 377,000. A separate report released on Thursday from outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas showed employers shedding 53,486 jobs in January, the largest total since September.

The more closely watched monthly employment report is on tap for Friday. Analysts will be looking to see if the pace of recovery picked up or slowed down in the first month of 2012.

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke also testified before the House Budget Committee on Thursday. The head of one of the world's most powerful central banks urged Congress to take steps to slowly lower the deficit over the long run, while not harming the economy in the short run.

On the corporate front, retailers posted their same-store sales results from January throughout the day.

Target (NYSE:TGT) saw its post-holiday sales jump 4.3%, zipping past estimates of 2.1%. Macy's (NYSE:M), the department store, revealed a 2.4% increase as compared to estimates of a 3.5% increase.

Facebook filed its initial public offering prospectus with U.S. securities regulators late Wednesday. The IPO is expected to be one of the biggest in history and comes as part of a fresh round of offerings from Internet companies like Zynga (NASDAQ:ZNGA) and Groupon (NASDAQ:GRPN).

Merck posted a fourth-quarter profit of 97 cents a share on revenue of $12.3 billion. Wall Street expected the healthcare giant to earn 95 cents on $12.53 billion. The Dow component said it sees its full-year EPS hitting between $3.75 and $3.85, compared to analysts’ average $3.83 estimate.

In Europe, debt talks between Greece and its private creditors went on for another day despite reports an agreement was imminent. Both sides have said they expect a deal to be forged this week, but as the week nears its close, hopes are dimming among market participants.

The euro was essentially flat at $1.3161, while the U.S. dollar rose 0.05% against a basket of six world currencies tracked by the dollar index.

Commodities markets struggled amid a modestly stronger greenback. The benchmark crude oil contract traded in New York fell $1.28, or 1.3%, to $96.36 a barrel, hitting a fresh 2012 settlement low. Wholesale RBOB gasoline slipped 0.81% to $2.869 a gallon.

In metals, gold climbed $9.80, or 0.56%, to $1,759 a troy ounce.

Foreign Markets

European blue chips rose 0.3%, the English FTSE 100 gained 0.09% to 5,796 and the German DAX edged higher to 6,656.

In Asia, the Japanese Nikkei 225 rose 0.76% to 8,877 and the Chinese Hang Seng rallied 2% to 20,739.