Stocks Slightly Up After Energy Advances

Stocks edged up on Thursday as higher oil prices lifted energy companies' shares in a noncommittal market faced with conflicting data on the economy's health.

The Dow Jones industrial average gained 34.79 points, or 0.25 percent, to end at 13,912.94. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index was up 5.96 points, or 0.39 percent, at 1,531.38. The Nasdaq Composite Index was up 10.56 points, or 0.39 percent, at 2,709.59.

A 3.2 percent jump in oil prices on supply concerns and the flagging dollar boosted shares of major oil producers and energy services companies. Exxon Mobil Corp (XOM) and Schlumberger Ltd (SLB), the world's largest oil service company, were among the biggest advancers in the S&P 500.

Earlier a report showed a plunge in new-home sales and the sharpest year-over-year drop in prices in nearly 37 years, reminding investors about the persistent slump in housing. But a surprising drop in weekly jobless claims suggested the labor market was still holding up.

The dollar fell to a record low against a basket of currencies and the euro in anticipation of another interest- rate cut by the Federal Reserve.

"We're not out of the woods in terms of weak housing-related numbers and data. (But) this is not the entire economy," said Tim Ghriskey, chief investment officer of Solaris Asset Management, in Bedford Hills, New York.

"In terms of its impact on (individual) stocks, I would call it mixed," he said.

Shares of student lender Sallie Mae (SLM) rose as traders bet the $25 billion deal to take over the student lender could be renegotiated at a lower price. The stock jumped 9.1 percent to $49.12.

Shares of Exxon gained 0.7 percent to $92.97 on the New York Stock Exchange as U.S. crude rose $2.58 to settle at $82.88 a barrel. Schlumberger rose 2 percent to $105.03.

Oil prices gained as Tropical Depression 13 in the Gulf of Mexico, a key oil production area, strengthened and was named Tropical Storm Lorenzo. Also, a weaker dollar was supportive, as it makes oil cheaper to holders of other currencies.

First Data Corp sold $9.445 billion of its $13 billion term loan backing the company's $26 billion leveraged buyout, sources said. The loan was seen as a test of demand for leveraged buyout financings put on hold by a global credit squeeze this summer.

Meanwhile, shares of Bear Stearns Cos Inc (BSC) fell 1.5 percent to $121.15 on the NYSE after a CNBC report downplayed any talks between the investment bank and potential outside investors. In late trading on Wednesday, Bear Stearns stock surged after The New York Times reported the broker is in serious talks about selling as much as 20 percent of the company to Warren Buffett and other investors.

Technology shares also gained as investors bet that further rate cuts will boost business spending, a key driver of tech profits. On the Nasdaq, shares of Apple Inc. (AAPL) rose 1.1 percent to $154.50.

Trading was below average on the New York Stock Exchange, with about 1.18 billion shares changing hands versus last year's estimated daily average of 1.84 billion. On Nasdaq, about 1.77 billion shares traded, below last year's daily average of 2.02 billion.

Advancing stocks outnumbered declining ones by a ratio of about 2 to 1 on the NYSE and by about 3 to 2 on Nasdaq.