Stocks rose slightly Wednesday in thin trading as investors, while welcoming a sharper-than-expected decline in jobless benefits and surprisingly high orders for manufactured goods, hurried toward the exits in preparation for the Thanksgiving holiday.

The Dow Jones industrial average (search) closed up 15.63 points, or 0.16 percent, at 9,779.57. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index (search) edged up 4.56 points, or 0.43 percent, to 1,058.45. The technology-focused Nasdaq Composite Index (search) ended up 10.27 points, or 0.53 percent, at 1,953.31, based on the latest available data.

"People are just taking a pause, particularly traders. It's been a good year for profits and protecting them has been the mantra over the last two or three weeks," said Philip Dow, director of equity strategy at RBC Dain Rauscher. "But at some point, you have to start looking through the windshield -- you can't keep focused on the rear view and how good things have been."

Trading was light and choppy as many traders took the day off before Thanksgiving, when the markets are closed. Analysts said the thin volume was impeding what might otherwise be stronger buying momentum.

"As everyone tried to pile out of the office, there's simply not a whole lot of people to react to the news," said Brian G. Belski, fundamental market strategist at US Bancorp Piper Jaffray.

"More people are focused on what's going to happen heading into 2004 rather than the last quarter in terms of economic data," he added.

It was the fourth straight session of gains for the Dow and S&P 500, putting them on track for their first up week in three.

The Labor Department (search) said first-time filings for state unemployment benefits dropped by 11,000 to 351,000 in the week ended Saturday, a sign that layoffs are finally easing. The decrease brought claims to their healthiest level since January 2001, before the economy slipped into recession.

Separately, the government reported surprisingly robust figures for durable goods orders (search) in October. New orders for long-lasting manufactured goods rose 3.3 percent, their biggest jump in more than a year and easily beating Wall Street forecasts.

However, consumer spending was unchanged last month, contrary to forecasts of a slight gain.

"The economic data is looking fantastic, but to a great degree people were expecting these numbers being good," said Pat Fay, director of equity trading at D.A. Davidson in Portland, Oregon.

Johnson & Johnson (JNJ) kept a lid on blue chips all session, closing down 99 cents, or almost 2 percent, at $49.70, making it the Dow's biggest percentage loser.

Analysts attributed the loss to questions over J&J's drug-coated stent, impending generic competition for its blockbuster pain patch, and negative news about a rival's schizophrenia drug that is similar to its own product.

Shares of rival Wyeth (WYE) leaped $2.40, or 6.4 percent, to $40.15 after it won a case brought by a patient claiming she suffered heart injuries from the diet drug combination known as fen-phen, a rare victory in the matter that has forced the drugmaker to take $16.6 billion in charges so far.

Altria Group (MO) helped push the Dow higher as its shares added to gains earlier in the week to hit a new 52-week high at $52.00, two days after its domestic tobacco unit Philip Morris USA was found not liable in a potentially expensive legal case in New Hampshire. Its shares closed up $1.08, or 2.1 percent, at $51.90.

Class 'A' shares of Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway Inc., the most expensive on the NYSE, hit an all-time high at $84,500 apiece, a day after the company continued its rapid expansion into old economy sectors as its Clayton Homes unit agreed to buy a bankrupt competitor. The 'A' shares of Berkshire Hathaway closed at $83,810.00, down $490.00 or 0.6 percent.

Ameritrade Holding Corp. (AMTD) gained 58 cents to $12.54 after Merrill Lynch & Co. upgraded the brokerage firm's stock rating to "buy" from "neutral."

RF Micro Devices Inc. (RFMD) rose 7 cents to $11.48 after C.E. Unterberg Towbin upgraded the company's stock rating to "buy" from "market perform," citing better growth prospects.

Losers included Ford Motor Co. (F), which fell 8 cents to $12.92, after a California appeals court slashed a $290 million punitive damage award in a Ford Bronco rollover case to $23.7 million.

In other economic news, factory activity in the Midwest expanded in November for a seventh straight month. The National Association of Purchasing Management-Chicago's business barometer surged to 64.1 from 55.0 in October, beating forecasts of 56.0 and notching its fastest pace since February 1995.

Trade was very light, which is normal before a major holiday. About 1.1 billion shares changed hands on the New York Stock Exchange, 17 percent fewer than last Wednesday. About 1.5 billion shares were traded on Nasdaq, also 17 percent fewer than last Wednesday.

Advancers outnumbered decliners two to one on the NYSE and about four to three on Nasdaq.

The Russell 2000 index, a barometer of smaller company stocks, rose 2.13, or 0.4 percent, to 545.31.

Overseas, Japan's Nikkei stock average advanced 1.9 percent. In Europe, Britain's FTSE 100 fell 0.4 percent, France's CAC-40 slipped 0.1 percent, and Germany's DAX index declined 0.5 percent.

Reuters and the Associated Press contributed to this report.