Stocks barely budged on Thursday as traders shied away from making big bets before Friday's jobs data, which will be scrutinized for clues about the economy's health and the outlook for interest rates and profits.

The Dow Jones industrial average was down 2.35 points, or 0.02 percent, at 13,965.70. But the Standard & Poor's 500 Index was up 1.93 points, or 0.13 percent, at 1,541.52. And the Nasdaq Composite Index was down just 0.43 of a point, or 0.02 percent, at 2,729.00.

But even as caution prevailed, shares of pharmaceutical companies, including Merck & Co (MRK) and those of financial services companies, such as Bank of America Corp (BAC), eked out gains, countering a drop in oil and technology stocks.

Shares of biotechnology and consumer staples companies also showed strength. Health-care stocks and financials are among sectors that have lagged the market and were seen due for a rebound, according to analysts.

Moreover, health-care stocks are believed to be able to withstand a slowing economy, while financials have been buoyed in recent sessions by expectations of further cuts in interest rates and hopes that the worst of the credit squeeze is over.

"We have a little bit of calm before the storm," said Georges Yared, founder and chief investment strategist at Yared Investment Research, in Minneapolis.

"There's a lot of news coming. We are waiting for the jobs report tomorrow and the earnings season goes in full force in the week after next. So we are sitting here in an information vacuum."

The Labor Department report, due on Friday morning, is expected to show employers added 94,000 jobs outside the farm sector last month, according to economists polled by Reuters. In August, employers unexpectedly cut 4,000 jobs.

Thursday's economic news included a report on weekly jobless claims from the Labor Department, which showed a slightly higher number of workers seeking unemployment benefits than expected.

A separate report showed a steeper-than-expected drop in August factory orders.

Merck's shares shot up 1.6 percent to $52.98 on the New York Stock Exchange, making the stock the Dow's top performer. Shares of rival Pfizer Inc (PFE) which named a new research chief on Wednesday, gained 1 percent to $25.33.

Among financial stocks, Bank of America gained 0.7 percent to $52.27 and helped support the S&P 500.

Shares of consumer products maker Procter & Gamble (PG), also considered a defensive play and among the beneficiaries of a weaker dollar, gained 0.6 percent to $70.85. Biotechnology company Biogen Idec Inc (BIIB) was among the stocks limiting the decline of the Nasdaq 100 index with a rise of 1.7 percent to $66.47.

In the latest earnings news, hotel operator Marriott International Inc (MAR) reported a lower profit and forecast future earnings below Wall Street's expectations, sending it shares down 4.6 percent to $42.29.

In a possible preview of Friday's payrolls data, reports from the private Institute for Supply Management and employment services company ADP on Wednesday showed modest job growth last month.

Shares of energy companies declined as oil's recent pullback from record highs continued. Exxon Mobil Corp (XOM) was among the top drags on both the Dow and the S&P 500, along with Intel Corp (INTC), a day after a brokerage warned about a looming semiconductor price war.

Exxon shares fell 0.6 percent to $90.76, while Intel slid 1.5 percent to $25.43.