A surprisingly poor signal on the jobs market sent stocks slightly lower Thursday as investors remained worried about a lack of hiring.
The modest drop came after the Labor Department said first-time claims for unemployment benefits rose unexpectedly last week.
Investors tried to muster a late-day rally, but there wasn't enough momentum to push the Dow Jones industrial average back into positive territory. The Dow closed down 5 points after dropping as much as 68 points earlier in the day. Broader indexes also fell modestly.
Trading volume on the New York Stock Exchange fell to its second-lowest level of the year as many traders avoid the market altogether.
The Labor Department said initial claims for unemployment benefits jumped to 479,000 last week from a 460,000 a week earlier. Economists polled by Thomson Reuters had forecast new claims would fall modestly.
The high unemployment rate in the U.S. remains one of the biggest worries for investors. The surprise jump in claims last week suggests that employers are still reluctant to create jobs, which could keep a damper on economic growth the coming months.
"The trend is going exactly in the wrong direction," said Phil Orlando, chief equity market strategist at Federated Investors. However, Orlando cautioned that layoffs of temporary census workers might have skewed results somewhat, and that's why the market didn't fall that much.
Traders will get a stronger reading on the jobs market Friday when the government releases its closely watched monthly tally of payrolls and the unemployment rate. Investors have been getting mixed signals on the economy in recent weeks, and sent stocks higher on Wednesday after payroll company ADP reported that private employers slightly increased hiring last month.
In other news, monthly retail sales reports showed shoppers remain skittish about spending as hiring remains scarce. Costco Wholesale Corp. and Limited Brands Inc. both reported big jumps in July sales, but that was compared with weak results a year ago.
Department store J.C. Penney Co. reported a surprise drop in July sales and said profit would fall at the low end of its outlook. Teen retailers like The Buckle Inc. and The Wet Seal Inc. continue to struggle as consumers increase their savings rate.
"Without job creation, you can't get consumer confidence up and spending up," said Joe Gordon, founder and managing partner of Gordon Asset Management. "People are very cautious."
The Dow fell 5.45, or 0.1 percent, to 10,674.98. The Standard & Poor's 500 index fell 1.43, or 0.1 percent, to 1,125.81, while the Nasdaq composite index fell 10.51, or 0.5 percent, to 2,293.06.
About four stocks fell for every three that rose on the New York Stock Exchange, where volume came to 875.6 million shares, only about two-thirds the average of 1.34 billion traded daily over the past 200 days.
Thursday's jobless claims report added to a murky picture on the economy heading into the monthly employment survey. The Labor Department is expected to say private employers hired 90,000 workers in July, a slight increase from the 83,000 hired in June. But because of government layoffs tied to cutting temporary census jobs, the unemployment rate is expected to rise to 9.6 percent from 9.5 percent.
Tim Speiss, chairman of Eisner LLP's Personal Wealth Advisors practice, said Friday's report doesn't have blow away expectations to reassure investors and ease concerns about slowing growth.
"Coming close to expectations will be sufficient," Speiss said.
Stocks have alternated between gains and losses all week as economic reports vacillate between topping expectations and falling short of forecasts.
Limited Brands rose 29 cents to $26.33, while Costco shares fell 94 cents to $56.46. J.C. Penney dropped $1.84, or 7.7 percent, to $22.12. Wet Seal dipped a penny to $3.32 and The Buckle fell $1.10, or 4 percent, to $26.11.
Bond prices climbed as investors opted for the safety of Treasurys. The yield on the 10-year Treasury note, which moves opposite to its price, fell to 2.91 percent from 2.96 percent late Wednesday. Its yield helps set interest rates on mortgages and other consumer loans.
Treasury yields are hovering near levels not seen since April 2009 when the stock market was just beginning a yearlong rally after touching 12-year lows.
In Europe, Britain's FTSE 100 fell 0.4 percent, Germany's DAX index rose less than 0.1 percent, and France's CAC-40 rose 0.1 percent.