NEW YORK – What began with a steep drop in the stock market ended with a modest decline Thursday. The Dow Jones industrial average lost just 60 points after being down nearly 240 points earlier in the day.
A jump in the number of people applying for jobless benefits and plummeting oil prices drove stocks lower at the market open. By 11 a.m., the Dow was down 234 points. Then came late afternoon reports that Greece may have reached a deal for a new austerity plan. The Dow made up nearly 100 points between 2:45 and 3 p.m. alone.
The Dow finished with a loss of 59.67 points, or 0.5 percent, to 12,050. The Standard & Poor's 500 index, down as many as 24 points, closed down just 3.64, or 0.3 percent, to 1,283.50.
Since late April, reports on manufacturing, retail sales, home sales and other economic indicators have come in weaker than economists anticipated. Europe's debt problems and a slowing growth rate in China have also raised concerns about the global economy. On Wednesday, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke said problems plaguing the economy may last longer than previously thought.
As a result, the stock market has fallen six of the last seven weeks. The S&P 500 is down 5.9 percent from its high for the year of 1363.61 in April.
"This is no longer looking like a small soft patch. It's beginning to look more like quicksand," said Lawrence Creatura, a stock portfolio manager at Federated Investors.
The continued rise in first-time claims for unemployment benefits indicated little improvement in the job market since May, when there was a drop in the number of new jobs created. New applications for unemployment benefits rose to 429,000 last week, from 420,000 the week before.
"400,000 is the magic number and we've been above it for 11 weeks," Creatura said.
Energy companies like Exxon Mobil and Chevron Corp. led the market downward after oil prices tumbled nearly 5 percent. Oil dropped after the International Energy Agency said 60 million barrels of oil would be released from reserves to make up for the loss of Libyan exports. Oil prices had spiked following unrests in Middle East and North Africa, raising concerns that higher fuel costs would slow the world economy.
Companies like Netflix, Priceline.com and others in the consumer discretionary industry were mostly up. Overall, the group rose 0.4 percent. Investors are betting that a drop in oil costs could lead consumers to spend more money on things like movies, restaurants and clothing. Netflix was up 2.9 percent. Chipotle Mexican Grill gained 2.2 percent.
Companies that benefit from lower fuel costs also rose. Airline stocks like United Continental Holdings Inc. and AMR Corp, the parent company of American Airlines, rose more than 4 percent.
The two indexes most tied to economic growth fared better than the broader market. The tech-focused Nasdaq composite index was up 17.56, or 0.7 percent, to 2,686.75. And the Russell 2000 index of small companies gained 0.4 percent. For the week, both are up 2.7 percent.
"We're starting to see that the supply-chain disruptions caused by the tragedy in Japan are easing a bit, and the biggest beneficiaries of that are technology and auto-supply companies" which tend to be smaller businesses, said Burt White, the chief investment officer at LPL Financial.
Among the most active stocks, Bed Bath & Beyond gained 5.3 percent after the home furnishings retailer posted a 31 percent jump in income. The company also raised its earnings forecast for the rest of the year, in part because of cost controls it has in place. ConAgra Foods Inc. fell 0.2 percent. The owner of Slim Jim and Hebrew National brands cut its earnings estimate for the current quarter.
Government bond prices were higher as traders shifted money into investments that are considered safe, pushing long-term interest rates lower. The yield on the 10-year Treasury note sank to 2.90 percent, near its low mark for the year. Bond yields fall when their prices rise.
Even so, portfolio manager Creatura says that the recent market slide could represent a chance to pick up some stocks on the cheap. Current prices already reflect reaction to most of the economy's problems, he says. "The most fearful times can be the best times to invest," he said. "It's not only what you buy, it's the price you pay that matters."
Three stocks fell for every two that rose on the New York Stock Exchange. Volume was slightly above average at 4.4 billion.