Walmart shares were the best performer of the Dow Jones Industrial Average, up by 3.4%, after the world's largest retailer reported comparable-store sales growth for the first time in seven quarters. The company had seen sluggish sales after the government cut food stamp benefits and the broader economy kept low-income customers from spending big.
Jobless claims rose to 290,000, the highest since mid-September, compared to the 280,000 expected by economists. Though higher than expected, the number of U.S. citizens applying for unemployment benefits remains near its lowest level since 2000.
Job openings slipped slightly to 4.735 million in September from 4.835 million a month earlier, according to the Job Openings and Labor Turnover Summary. Analysts expected 4.8 million openings. At current levels, job openings are the second-highest, after August, since January 2001, providing further evidence of the labor market recovery.
The Dow added 0.47%, the S&P 500 climbed 0.33%, and the Nasdaq popped 0.57%.
Oil prices continued to slide Thursday after China released softer-than-expected factory forecasts, triggering fears its economy could see its weakest year in nearly a quarter of a century. A day earlier, OPEC warned of weaker demand in 2015 tied to global oversupply. West Texas Intermediate crude oil tumbled 1.4% on Thursday to $76.09 a barrel.
"The softer oil and commodity prices are likely to add some boost to corporate margins for many segments of the economy," Wells Fargo's Stuart Freeman and Scott Wren wrote in a note. "Lower oil and gas prices have acted as 'tax cuts,' putting more money in the pockets of U.S. consumers. Consumer discretionary income should increase as a result."
Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway (BRK.A) agreed to buy Procter & Gamble's (PG) Duracell battery business in a deal that includes $1.7 billion in cash and about $4.7 billion in P&G stock currently held by the billionaire investor's holding company. P&G shares rose slightly.
Kohl's (KSS) fell 3.7% after the retail chain reported comparable-store sales down 1.8% in its quarter. J.C. Penney (JCP) shares were down 9.7% after the retail chain posted a quarterly net loss of 77 cents a share, narrower than forecasts, but on slowing sales.
--Written by Keris Alison Lahiff in New York.