Stocks waver; signs on the economy hard to read

Stocks flicker between small gains and losses; unemployment claims dip, but China slows

NEW YORK (AP) -- The stock market has the summer doldrums.

U.S. stocks dawdled between small gains and losses Thursday with investors unable to decide what to focus on: incremental encouraging news about the U.S. economy, or incremental negative news about China and elsewhere.

The Dow Jones industrial average fell 10.45 points — just 0.08 percent. It has barely budged for most of the week, rising Monday through Wednesday but only by small fractions of a percent. The relative quiet is partly due to a lack of major developments in the European debt crisis or decisive news on the U.S. economy. Another reason is simply because traders like to clear out for vacation in August.

"I think there are more active managers in the Hamptons than there are in Manhattan," said Hugh Johnson, chairman and chief investment officer of Hugh Johnson Advisors in Albany, N.Y.

David Abuaf, chief investment officer of Hefty Wealth Partners, wasn't in the Hamptons: He was in his office in Auburn, Ind. And he, also, was watching the markets languish.

"There has been nothing systemically consistent, either good news or bad news," Abuaf said. "So a lot of professional asset managers are saying, 'I don't know where I want to put my money, but if I don't invest now then my clients are going to start demanding their money back.'"

The Dow closed at 13,165.19. It was down about 51 points at its lowest and up 23 at its highest, meaning it had a spread of about 74 points throughout the day. The average spread for the year so far is much higher, about 134 points, according to Dow Jones Indexes.

Changes in the other indexes were equally underwhelming. The Standard & Poor's 500 was virtually flat, rising 0.58 points to 1,402.80. The Nasdaq edged up 7.39 to 3,018.64.

The trendless market was a product of conflicting news about the world economy.

In the U.S., the government reported that the trade deficit fell to the lowest level in 18 months, which is generally considered good for the economy. In June, the U.S. enjoyed lower prices for the oil it brought in and higher sales of the cars, pharmaceuticals and industrial machinery it shipped out.

But the report also brought a troubling sign that China, which grew even through the global recession and afterward, can't prop up world markets forever. U.S. exports to China dropped more than 4 percent. Separately, China reported that growth slowed in auto sales and factory output.

Another emerging-market giant, India, reported lower industrial output for the third time in four months.

Advance Auto Parts fell after reporting lower revenue and net income, losing nearly 4 percent, or $2.65, to $67.92. Cosmetics company Elizabeth Arden jumped 13 percent, rising $5.06 to $44.02, after reporting strong international sales.

Online brokerage E-Trade jumped nearly 7 percent, rising 55 cents to $8.57, after the company unexpectedly fired its CEO. The company didn't spell out its reasons for the dismissal, but the stock has languished and the company's largest shareholder, hedge fund Citadel, has clamored for change.

Across the Atlantic, there were a few foreboding reminders that Europe's economy remains in trouble.

Germany's Commerzbank predicted lower profits for the rest of the year, worrying that customers are too nervous to invest or take out loans.

Greece reported that unemployment soared to 23 percent in May from 17 percent the year before. Among people under 25 years old, 55 percent are out of work.

All year the market has swung back and forth on even small developments out of debt-hobbled Europe. But Thursday, investors apparently didn't mind.

"Investors are essentially giving (European) policymakers a pass over the next few weeks because it's summer," said Jeremy Zirin, chief equity strategist at UBS Wealth Management. "But when summer is over and everyone is back in September, markets are not going to be willing to give policymakers as much time and as much rope."

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