CHIP CUTTER

NEW YORK (AP) â¿¿ Stocks slipped Thursday after the government reported an increase in applications for unemployment benefits last week.

The Labor Department said Thursday that 409,000 people made claims for benefits for the first time. That's up 18,000 from the previous week, when applications fell to their lowest level in more than two years.

The report came a day after ADP estimated that companies added nearly 300,000 jobs last month, far more than the 100,000 economists expected. That pushed stock prices higher and Treasury prices lower as investors became more optimistic about the job market.

The most important news on the job market will arrive on Friday morning when the Labor Department releases its monthly survey of all U.S. payrolls and the unemployment rate. Economists expect the rate fell to 9.7 percent in December from 9.8 percent the previous month.

"At worst unemployment is flat. At best it's coming down," said James O'Sullivan, chief economist at MF Global in New York.

MF Global is optimistic about the jobs report. Despite the increase in claims last week, O'Sullivan noted that the four-week average fell to 411,000, the lowest since July 2008.

Many retailers fell after reporting weaker sales in December. Target Corp. fell 7 percent to $54.93 and Gap Inc. fell 7 percent to $20.70. Macy's Inc. fell 4 percent to $23.97.

A blizzard in the Northeast hurt sales after Christmas. Retail sales were strong in November since many customers shopped earlier in the holiday season this year. Analysts still expect overall retail spending in November and December to increase by the largest amount since 2006.

The Dow Jones industrial average fell 25.58 points, or 0.2 percent, to close at 11,697.31.

The Standard & Poor's 500 index fell 2.71, or 0.2 percent, to close at 1,273.85. The Nasdaq composite index rose 7.69, or 0.3 percent, to 2,709.89.

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