updated 6/3/2005 9:55:26 AM ET 2005-06-03T13:55:26

Stocks closed Thursday’s meandering session slightly higher, as investors faced a muddled view of the economy and held off on making any large bets on stocks before the government’s May jobs report, due Friday morning.

Major Market Indices

Wall Street was cheered as factory orders rose in April at the fastest rate in five months, and was further encouraged by a 2.9 percent rise in productivity in the first quarter , just shy of the 3.0 percent economists expected. In addition, retail sales in May were fairly strong despite an unusually chilly spring.

Yet the Labor Department reported a larger-than-expected number of first-time jobless claims filed last week , and the department’s productivity report pointed to the possibility of higher wage costs, which could spur inflation. With the Labor Department’s job creation report due Friday, trading volume was light as investors generally stayed on the sidelines.

“Are we in that perfect ‘Goldilocks’ kind of economy, or are the numbers here pointing to new problems?” said Jay Suskind, head trader at Ryan Beck & Co. “So in front of tomorrow’s employment numbers, the market lays an egg and we wait.”

The Dow Jones industrial average was up 3.62 points, or 0.03 percent, at the close, following an 82-point gain on Wednesday. The broader Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index added 2.07 points, or 0.2 percent, while the technology-rich Nasdaq composite index advanced 9.94 points, or 0.5 percent.

Oil prices dropped after a surprising increase in the nation’s crude oil and gasoline stockpiles . The price of a barrel of light crude settled at $53.63, down 97 cents on the New York Mercantile Exchange. It moved briefly above $55 earlier in the day.

Despite the economic concerns and the unusual activity in the bond market, analysts were encouraged that stocks did not sell off substantially after the gains of the past month.

“We’re seeing a little pause here, but we’re in the middle of a powerful up trend, and traders should be looking at every dip in the market to find a new entry point,” said Ken Tower, chief market strategist for Schwab’s CyberTrader.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. gained 30 cents to $48.22 after reporting a 2.5 percent increase in sales at stores open at least a year, on par with Wall Street’s expectations . Costco Wholesale Corp., which surpassed Wall Street forecasts, was up $1.06 at $46.62, while home decor retailer Pier 1 Imports Inc. dropped 89 cents to $15.74 after missing its sales estimates and warning that its second-quarter profits would be lower than expected.

Dow industrial Citigroup slipped a penny to $47.71 after the company announced it would buy the $6.6 billion credit card businesses of merger partners Federated Department Stores Inc. and May Department Stores Co. for a total $760 million. Federated rose $1.39 to $69.09, while May added 40 cents to $38.71.

A report in The New York Times had Citigroup in talks with Legg Mason Inc. to swap Citi’s mutual fund and asset management divisions for Legg Mason’s brokerage network, along with cash and stock. Legg Mason climbed $2.63 to $86.92.

In the technology sector, Sun Microsystems Inc. fell 11 cents to $3.79 after it said it would buy Storage Technology Corp. for $4.1 billion . The acquisition gives Sun, which makes computer servers, added storage services to offer its customers. StorageTek surged 16.5 percent, or $5.16, to $36.39.

Shopping.com soared 19.1 percent, or $3.33, to $20.77 after the online shopping comparison site announced it will be purchased by Internet auctioneer eBay Inc. for about $260 million in cash, or $21 per share. eBay was off 34 cents at $38.77 on the news.

Biogen Idec Inc. lost $1.70 to $38.07 after the drugmaker reported a fourth case of a rare brain disease in patients taking its Tysabri multiple sclerosis drug. Elan Corp., which produces the drug with Biogen, tumbled 14.3 percent, or $1.14, to $6.85.

Overseas, Japan’s Nikkei stock average fell 0.44 percent. In Europe, Britain’s FTSE 100 was down 0.12 percent, France’s CAC-40 climbed 0.13 percent for the session, and Germany’s DAX index rose 0.11 percent.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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