US stocks flat ahead of unemployment report

Investors coasted on Thursday, leaving stocks unchanged while they looked ahead to Friday for a major jobs report. U.S. government bonds hardly moved, and neither did European stocks.

U.S. stocks rose slightly in the morning after the Labor Department said the four-week average of unemployment claims fell to 375,750, the lowest since June 2008 and enough to suggest a steadily improving job market.

The more important numbers come Friday, when the government releases the number of jobs created in January and the unemployment rate. In December, the country added 200,000 jobs, and the rate was 8.5 percent.

The Dow Jones industrial average traded in a narrow range all day, between a gain of 25 points and a loss of 40. It closed down 11.05 points at 12,705.41. In the 274 trading days since the beginning of 2011, the Dow has traded in a narrower range only 25 times.

The broader Standard & Poor’s 500 index rose 1.45, or 0.1 percent, to 1,325.54. The Nasdaq composite rose 11.41 points, or 0.4 percent, to 2,859.68.

Bond traders stayed on the sidelines, too. The price of the benchmark 10-year Treasury note rose 6.2 cents for every $100 invested, and the yield inched down to 1.82 percent from 1.83 percent Wednesday.

U.S. mining stocks rose after British mining company Xstrata PLC confirmed it is in merger discussions with commodities trader Glencore International PLC. In the U.S., Newmont Mining Corp. rose 1.9 percent, Alcoa was up 2.2 percent, and iron ore and coal miner Cliffs Natural Resources Inc. rose 0.3 percent.

The deal is a signal to investors that mining companies are trading at low prices compared with the commodities they mine, said Nathan Rowader, director of investments at Forward Management in San Francisco.

Health insurer Cigna dropped 3.4 percent after its earnings fell short of expectations as it absorbed higher corporate and medical costs. Pfizer fell 0.8 percent after recalling birth-control pills.

Retailers were a patchwork of rising and falling stocks, reflecting their patchwork of January sales results. Costco and Target came in better than expected. Macy’s and Dillard’s fell short. Costco rose 2.8 percent, and Target rose 1.1 percent.

Gap rose 10.7 percent after revenue at its high-end Banana Republic stores rose 6 percent.

Abercrombie & Fitch Co. fell 13.8 percent to a one-year low after it said higher markdowns and cotton costs mean its adjusted fourth-quarter profit and revenue will be less than analysts had expected.

Last year, investors were so worried about a financial disaster in Europe that U.S. companies with strong earnings have been undervalued, said Tim Courtney, chief investment officer of Burns Advisory Group in Oklahoma City.

Now, he said, stock prices are catching up. The S&P is up 5.4 percent this year, the Dow 4 percent.

“Right now the market is going up just on the absence of bad news, on the absence of that worst-case scenario materializing,” he said.

Stocks in Europe closed nearly flat or up slightly. Britain’s FTSE 100 index rose 0.1 percent. Germany’s DAX was 0.6 percent higher, and the CAC-40 in France rose 0.3 percent.

The euro was also subdued after recent gains, trading slightly lower at $1.315.

In other corporate news:

? Green Mountain Coffee Roasters Inc., which makes Keurig cup coffee brewers, rose a hot 24 percent after it said first-quarter revenue more than doubled, margins tripled, and net income rose more than 40-fold.

? MasterCard rose 6.7 percent after adjusted profits beat Wall Street expectations.

? Starwood Hotels & Resorts World Inc., which operates Sheraton and Westin hotels, fell 1.6 percent after it said its fourth-quarter profit dropped 51 percent because it set aside money for an unfavorable legal decision.

Natural gas prices climbed more than 7 percent after the government said the nation’s supplies shrank last week. Natural gas hit a 10-year low last month.

Benchmark crude oil fell $1.25 to end at $96.36 per barrel in New York because of weak demand.