US stocks mostly higher in midday trading on positive labor market data; Energy stocks slump


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Major stock indexes drifted mostly higher in midday trading Thursday as investors sifted through a mix of corporate earnings and economic news. Energy stocks were among the biggest decliners as oil prices extended their slide.

KEEPING SCORE: The Dow Jones industrial average gained 73 points, or 0.4 percent, to 17,264 as of 12:18 p.m. Eastern. The Standard & Poor's 500 rose one point, or 0.1 percent, to 2,003. The Nasdaq composite shed nine points, or 0.2 percent, to 4,628.

ENERGY: Benchmark U.S. crude fell 59 cents to $43.86 a barrel in New York. The contract lost $1.78 on Wednesday to close at $44.45, after the Energy Department reported that U.S. oil inventories rose to their highest levels ever recorded.

ECONOMIC BELLWETHER: The U.S. government reported that weekly claims for unemployment benefits dropped to the lowest level in almost 15 years last week, a sign that hiring will likely remain healthy. That supports the Federal Reserve's assessment on Wednesday that the U.S. economy is expanding at a solid pace and generating strong job growth. That bolsters the case for the central bank to raise interest rates from near zero sooner, rather than later, said Doug Cote, chief market strategist for Voya Investment Management.

THE QUOTE: "The market is reacting to the Fed being intent on normalizing interest rate policy, and today's numbers added to that pressure," Cote said.

Higher interest rates tend to make stocks less attractive in comparison to bonds.

SECTOR WATCH: Six of the 10 sectors in the S&P 500 rose, and safe-harbor utilities rose the most. Energy stocks were the biggest decliners. The sector is down 6.6 percent this year. Qualcomm notched the biggest drop among stocks in the S&P 500, shedding $7.93, or 11.2 percent, to $63.08. Harman International Industries led among the gainers, rising $18.09, or 18 percent, to $119.11.

HAPPY MEAL: McDonald's stock climbed 4.4 percent following news late Wednesday that CEO Don Thompson is stepping down. The world's biggest hamburger chain has been struggling to hold onto customers amid intensifying competition and changing attitudes about food. The news pushed the stock up $3.95 to $92.73.

ALIBABA ALARM: A scathing report by regulators in China claimed e-commerce giant Alibaba failed to prevent fake goods from being sold on its websites. Further muddying the water was a disclosure that the report was delayed to avoid affecting Alibaba's $25 billion New York stock market listing. Meanwhile, Alibaba reported adjusted fourth-quarter earnings that beat expectations as its user base continued to grow and shoppers bought more on mobile phones. The stock fell $8.74, or 8.9 percent, to $89.71.

ALL ABOUT OIL: ConocoPhillips posted a loss for the fourth quarter, hurt by falling oil prices. The company said it will cut spending on drilling and exploration projects in parts of the U.S. Its shares fell 45 cents to $62.13. Valero Energy and Phillips 66 fared better, delivering fourth-quarter earnings that topped Wall Street's expectations. Valero's shares added 66 cents, or 1.3 percent, to $52.17, while Phillips gained $1.14, or 1.7 percent, to $69.50.

ROUGH SEAS: Shares in Royal Caribbean Cruises slid 4.9 percent after the cruise operator reported fourth-quarter results and an outlook that missed Wall Street expectations. The stock shed $3.98 to $77.83.

CRAVING KRAVE: Hershey, maker of Reese's, Kit Kat and Twizzlers, said it has agreed to buy jerky maker Krave Jerky for an undisclosed sum. Shares in Hershey fell $8, or 7.4 percent, to $99.69.

HOUSING DAMPER: A separate report by the National Association of Realtors showed fewer Americans signed contracts to buy homes in December. The pending home sales data are a barometer of future home purchases.

OVERSEAS MARKETS: European markets rose. Germany's DAX added 0.3 percent, while France's CAC-40 gained 0.4 percent. Britain's FTSE 100 rose 0.2 percent. In Asia, Japan's Nikkei 225 and Hong Kong's Hang Seng fell 1.1 percent. The Shanghai Composite shed 1.3 percent.

CURRENCIES: The dollar rose to 118.37 yen from 117.73 yen the previous day. The euro rose to $1.1292 from $1.1286.

BONDS: U.S. government bond prices fell. The yield on the 10-year Treasury note rose to 1.75 percent from 1.72 percent late Wednesday.

AP Business Writer Elaine Kurtenbach in Tokyo contributed to this story.

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