NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- The S&P 500 settled at another record high Thursday amid fewer jobless claims, while the European Central Bank's decision to hold rates showed improved regional confidence. Elsewhere, the Russian-backed Crimea government in Ukraine set a referendum to ratify its decision to withdraw from the country and join Russia.
- The S&P 500 settled up 0.17% to 1,877.03 while the Dow Jones Industrial Average gained 0.38% to 16,421.89. The Nasdaq was down slightly at 4,352.13.
- Initial jobless claims fell 26,000 to 323,000 -- the lowest level in three months -- in the week ended March 1. Economists were looking for jobless claims of 335,000. The Labor Department said the four-week moving average that is indicative of longer-term trends decreased by 2,000 to 336,500.
- Fourth-quarter nonfarm productivity rose 1.8% compared with the 1.9% estimate, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported. January factory orders fell 0.7%, slightly worse than predictions for a 0.6% slide. The raft of economic reports this morning precedes Friday's government job report for February, in which a gain of 150,000 to U.S. nonfarm payrolls is expected.
- The ECB, encouraged by the recent spate of improved economic data, kept interest rates unchanged at a record low of 0.25%. The region's central bank raised its 2014 growth forecast to 1.2%. ECB President Mario Draghi told a media conference that monetary policy would remain accommodative even after broad economic improvement. Draghi said the economic links between Ukraine and the eurozone were "not as important as to suggest strong contagion" but warned geopolitical risks were significant.
- Global markets were mostly higher. The FTSE closed up 0.19% while the DAX was up 0.01%. The Hang Seng closed up 0.55% while the Nikkei jumped 1.59%.
- In stock news, Sodastream International (SODA - Get Report) closed up 3.2% after hedge fund manager Whitney Tilson revealed that he's taken a stake in the company and wrote a positive article about the stock.
- Pandora Media (P - Get Report) ended Thursday's session down 5.58% after reporting a slowdown in listener-hours growth for February, adding that it intends to discontinue its monthly disclosure of key audience metrics.
- Children's Place PLCE closed down 7.39% after giving disappointing full-year guidance and fourth-quarter earnings results. The company said it expects to close 125 underperforming stores through 2016.
- U.S. markets closed flat Wednesday as investors digested disappointing U.S. services sector and private-payrolls reports and after the S&P 500 hit a new record during the previous session on easing tensions in Ukraine. Despite the sharp declines at the beginning of the week, major indices are in the green so far this week.