In economic news, initial jobless claims fell by 6,000 to 388,000 in the week ended March 26. The market had expected the level to hold steady at 383,000 from the previous week's initially-reported level of 382,000, according to

The news comes a day after Automated Data Processing said companies added 201,000 jobs in March, and a day ahead of the government's March employment report, which is expected to show job growth of 185,000, according to The unemployment level is projected to remain at 8.9%. The Labor Department will release the report at 8:30 a.m. ET on Friday.

Manufacturing activity in the Chicago region didn't weaken by as much as economists had expected, according to the Chicago's Institute for Supply Management's purchasing managers index, which fell to 70.6 in March from 71.2 in February. The market had been expecting a reading of 69.5, according to

The Commerce Department said February factory orders unexpectedly fell 0.1%, after January's jump of 3.3%, which was upwardly revised from an initially reported increase of 3.1%.

Irish banks could need up to $33.9 billion to stay viable, the country's central bank said Thursday after conducting stress tests. Yields on Irish and Portuguese bonds had climbed ahead of the report.

London's FTSE lost 0.7%, and the DAX in Frankfurt fell 0.2%. Japan's Nikkei gained 0.5% and Hong Kong's Hang Seng added 0.3%.

Market breadth was split with 57% of stocks on the New York Stock Exchange gaining ground and 40% declining. There were 455 million shares changing hands on the NYSE and 1.2 billion shares trading on the Nasdaq.

Berkshire Hathaway ( BRK.B) said David Sokol, who was rumored to be among the top candidates to succeed Warren Buffett, resigned , amid disclosures from Buffett that Sokol bought stock in a company recently acquired by Berkshire. The stock shed 2.1%.

Sokol is also the largest stakeholder of bank-holding company Middleburg Financial ( MBRG). Shares of Middleburg soared 9.3% to $16.45 after Sokol said that he would like to start a "mini-Berkshire", prompting speculation about Middleburg's role in those plans.

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