Dec. 20, 2012 at 11:38 AM ET
Stocks straddled the flatline Thursday as ongoing uncertainties over the "fiscal cliff" talks overshadowed a batch of better-than-expected economic reports.
The Dow Jones Industrial Average bobbed in and out of positive territory, a day after logging its biggest one-day drop in December. Merck led the blue-chip laggards, while Bank of America gained.
The S&P 500 and the Nasdaq struggled for direction. The CBOE Volatility Index (VIX), widely considered the best gauge of fear in the market, traded near 17.
Among key S&P sectors, financials gained, while consumer discretionary lagged.
The economy grew at a faster-than-expected pace in the third quarter, expanding at a 3.1 percent annual rate, according to the Commerce Department, up from the 2.7 percent pace reported last month. Economists surveyed by Reuters had expected a reading of 2.8 percent.
Existing home sales jumped 5.9 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 5.04 million units in November, according to the National Association of Realtors. Economists polled by Reuters expected a gain of 1.3 percent.
Meanwhile, weekly jobless claims climbed 17,000 to a seasonally adjusted 361,000 in the previous week, according to the Labor Department. Economists polled by Reuters had expected a reading of 357,000. The four-week moving average for new claims, fell 13,750 to 367,750, the lowest since late October.
And leading indicators slipped 0.2 percent to 95.8 in November, according to the Conference Board. The decline was in line with expectations.
Boehner pressed his "Plan B" proposal that would extend the Bush-era tax cuts for those earnings up to $1 million, despite Obama's veto threat, saying it will be approved Thursday by the GOP-controlled House.
Meanwhile, Obama said the two sides were only $200 billion apart in a deal to avoid the looming "fiscal cliff," and he's ready to get the job done.
Merck slumped after the pharmaceutical company said its cholesterol drug study failed. The company said it no longer plans to seek approval for the drug in the U.S.
NYSE Euronext surged after IntercontinentalExchange agreed to acquire the financial services company in a deal worth nearly $8.2 billion. The offer values NYSE shares at $33.12, a 38 percent premium over Wednesday's closing price. The acquisition is expected to close in the second half of 2013.
Among earnings, Rite Aid surged after the drugstore chain posted its first quarterly profit in more than five years and boosted its forecast for the year.
ConAgra Foods edged higher after the packaged foods company posted better-than-expected earnings, and said its full-year profit will be at the high end of estimates.
Among earnings, Nike and Research In Motion are among notable companies slated to report after the closing bell.
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