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

The Labor Department said 409,000 people applied for unemployment benefits. That's up from 388,000 the previous week, when applications fell to their lowest level in more than two years. The number of applications suggests that companies are adding jobs but at a sluggish pace.

The report came a day after ADP, a payroll processor, estimated that private companies added 297,000 jobs last month, far more than the 100,000 economists expected. That report pushed stock prices higher and Treasury prices lower as investors became more optimistic about the job market.

In a week with several reports on employment, the most important one will arrive on Friday when the Labor Department releases its monthly survey of all U.S. payrolls and the unemployment rate. Economists expect the rate will fall to 9.7 percent from 9.8 percent.

Retailers reported sales figures for December, and many were weaker than analysts had expected. Target Corp. fell 6 percent to $55.31 and Gap Inc. fell 7 percent to $20.59. Macy's Inc. fell 3 percent to $24.33.

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 lost 31 points, or 0.3 percent, to 11,692 in midday trading.

The Standard & Poor's 500 index fell 3, or 0.3 percent, to 1,273. The Nasdaq composite index rose 3, or 0.1 percent, to 2,706.

Bond prices rose, sending their yields slightly lower. The yield on the 10-year Treasury note fell to 3.43 percent from 3.46 percent late Wednesday. The yield is used to set interest rates on many kinds of loans including mortgages.

Monsanto Co. rose 3 percent to $71.16 after the company reported that higher sales of corn, soybean, vegetable and cotton seeds helped it become profitable again.

Constellation Brands Inc. fell 5 percent to $20.51 after the maker of Robert Mondavi wine and Svedka vodka said revenue fell 2 percent on weak wine sales.

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