Wall Street Flirts With Gains

After a downside morning, stocks in New York are trading around the baseline as investors take in the latest weekly jobless claims and trade deficit data and await word on a bailout for U.S. automakers.
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Updated from 10:53 a.m. EST

Stocks in New York were zigzagging across the flat line midday Thursday as dismal jobless numbers weighed against a seemingly inevitable automakers' bailout.

The

Dow Jones Industrial Average

, which was down as much as 142 points earlier in the morning, was lately up 19 points at 8780. The

S&P 500

was edging up 2.5 points at 901, and the

Nasdaq

was adding 1.9 points at 1567.

Leading the economic news of the day, the number of

new claims for jobless benefits

increased to a seasonally adjusted 573,000 in the week ended Dec. 6, from 515,000 the previous week, according a report by the Labor Department. The daunting number marks a 26-year high.

The numbers will likely remain volatile through the holidays, according to Ian Shepherdson, chief U.S. economist for High Frequency Economics. "Stepping back from the short-term noise, though, it is very clear that the underlying trend in claims is still rocketing, as companies throw in the towel and prepare for a long, deep recession," he writes. "There is no prospect of any real improvement in payrolls until claims turn down; that still seems a long way off."

The trade deficit -- the gap between what the U.S. imports and exports -- widened to $57.2 billion in October, from $56.6 billion in September, according to the Census Bureau. Economists had expected the deficit to narrow to $53.5 billion. The rise reflects an unexpected $1.1 billion increase in oil imports, says Shepherdson, "This merely delays the inevitable; oil imports will fall in November."

More worrisome, he says, is the third consecutive decline in exports (excluding oil and aircraft), which were previously increasing by more than 20%. "The sudden plunge likely reflects both the collapse in global demand and the credit crunch, which is making it harder to get trade finance."

Overall, exports declined by $3.4 billion month over month, while imports fell by $2.7 billion.

Late Wednesday the House of Representatives passed a

rescue bill

for

Ford

(F) - Get Report

,

General Motors

(GM) - Get Report

and

Chrysler

. But the plan, under which the government would draw about $14 billion from an existing loan program meant to help the automakers build fuel-efficient vehicles, may face challenges from skeptical Republicans when it comes to the floor of the Senate.

In company news,

Costco

(COST) - Get Report

missed profit targets in its fiscal first quarter due to the slowdown in non-food discretionary sales and related margin reductions. Shares were down modestly early Thursday.

Procter & Gamble

(PG) - Get Report

scaled back its sales guidance for its second quarter to account for inventory cuts from retailers, distributors and consumers.

Also

Boeing

(BA) - Get Report

said Thursday that due to the recent Machinists' strike and the required replacement of certain fasteners, it's pushing back the timeline for the first 787 Dreamliner commercial jet. This, the fourth major delay on the 787, will push the first test flight to the second quarter of 2009 and the first delivery to the first quarter of 2010.

In

analyst actions

, Credit Suisse cut its estimates for

Google

(GOOG) - Get Report

based on low visibility and weak ad trends, and Morgan Stanley cut its estimates for

Microsoft

(MSFT) - Get Report

based on negative data points.

Shifting to commodities, crude oil was rising $3.91 to $47.43 a barrel. Gold was gaining $20.70 to $829.50 an ounce.

As the price of crude oil rose above $47, shares of

Exxon Mobil

(XOM) - Get Report

,

BP

(BP) - Get Report

and

ConocoPhillips

(COP) - Get Report

were also trending upward Thursday.

Late Wednesday, the rates for three-month Treasury bills continued to flirt with negative territory. Treasury bill rates turn negative when investors are so risk-averse that they're essentially willing to pay the U.S. government to safeguard their money for a time.

After rising in price earlier in the day, longer-dated U.S. Treasury securities recently reversed. The 10-year was losing 2/32 to yield 2.7%, and the 30-year gave up 28/32, yielding 3.1%. The dollar was weaker against the euro, pound and yen.

Overseas, European markets were mixed -- the FTSE in London was up 0.5%, while the DAX in Frankfurt traded down 0.8%, respectively. In Asia, Japan's Nikkei and Hong Kong's Hang Seng both ended higher.

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