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Stocks drift to mixed close; S&P 500 ekes out another record

This Nov. 23, 2020 file photo shows the New York Stock Exchange, right, in New York. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

(AP) -- Stocks drifted to a mixed close on Wall Street Thursday as the earnings reporting season for U.S. companies ramped into higher gear. The S&P 500 edged up just one point, enough to mark another record high. The Dow and other market measures fell, as did most stocks. Insurer Travelers jumped after reporting a stronger-than-expected profit, as most companies have been doing so far in this earnings season. United Airlines fell after reporting a worse loss than expected. Economic reports were mixed, including one showing 900,000 workers applied for unemployment benefits last week. Treasury yields continued to move higher.

    THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. AP's earlier story follows below.

    Stocks are drifting around their record highs on Wall Street Thursday, as earnings season ramps into higher gear.

    The S&P 500 was up 0.2% in afternoon trading, a day after setting an all-time high amid enthusiasm about COVID-19 vaccines leading to an economic recovery and expectations that Washington will deliver more stimulus for the economy.

    The Dow Jones Industrial Average was up 45 points, or 0.1%, at 31,233, as of 2:50 p.m. Eastern time, and the Nasdaq composite was 0.6% higher. More stocks were lower on Wall Street than higher.

    Apple, Intel and other big technology companies helped lift the market, outweighing losses in energy stocks, banks and elsewhere.

    "Today is similar to yesterday in the sense that the broad indexes are flat or higher, but it's actually the tech names that have taken leadership again," said Ross Mayfield, investment strategy analyst at Baird.

    Optimism about a strengthening economy later this year has been powerful enough to paper over worries about today's struggles. On Thursday, a report showed that 900,000 U.S. workers filed for unemployment benefits last week, as the worsening pandemic forces businesses to shut down and lay off employees. The number was less terrible than the prior week's 926,000, but it's still incredibly high compared with history.

    Wall Street has actually seen such miserable numbers as a reason for optimism in the past, perversely, because they add urgency on Congress to deliver more aid for the economy.

    President Joe Biden has already proposed a $1.9 trillion plan, including $1,600 cash payments for most Americans and other assistance for the economy. Even though his Democratic party controls both houses of Congress, the proposal will likely face resistance given how slim the majority is.

    Other reports on the economy were more encouraging on Thursday, including better-than-expected data on the homebuilding industry and manufacturing in the Philadelphia region.

    More companies are also telling investors how badly their profits got hit during the last three months of 2020, when coronavirus counts and deaths were soaring. Wall Street came into this earnings reporting season with low expectations, forecasting a fourth straight quarter of profit declines. But most companies have been topping expectations.

    Travelers rose 2.5% after the insurer reported a much stronger profit for the latest quarter than analysts expected.

    Homebuilders D.R. Horton and Lennar were each up more than 1% following the encouraging report on housing starts, while Paccar climbed 10.8% after saying it will partner with autonomous-vehicle company Aurora to develop self-driving Peterbilt and Kenworth trucks.

    On the losing end was United Airlines, which lost 5.5% after reporting a worse loss for the end of 2020 than analysts expected. The worsening pandemic is keeping fliers out of the skies, and the company's forecast for revenue at the start of 2021 fell short of analysts' expectations.

    The yield on the 10-year Treasury rose to 1.10% from 1.07% late Wednesday.

    Besides optimism about vaccines and the prospect for more stimulus from Washington, huge actions by central banks around the world are also helping to prop up stock markets. The Federal Reserve has its first policy meeting of the year next week, and it has said it doesn't expect to pull interest rates off their record lows anytime soon. Low rates can help push up prices for stocks and other investments.

    The European Central Bank on Thursday said it would hold interest rates steady and leave its bond-purchase stimulus program unchanged. In European stock markets, Germany's DAX fell 0.1%, and France's CAC 40 slipped 0.7%. The FTSE 100 in London dipped 0.4%.

    In Asia, South Korea's Kospi rose 1.5%, Hong Kong's Hang Seng slipped 0.1% and stocks in Shanghai added 1.1%.

    Japan's Nikkei 225 rose 0.8% as exports for the world's third-largest economy rose for the first time in two years.

    Japan's economy, like many others, has been slammed by the coronavirus pandemic, which has crushed tourism and dampened economic activity and trade. The Bank of Japan on Thursday kept its easy monetary policy at its policy board meeting, as expected.

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