US stocks mixed on inflation concerns

NEW YORK (AP) - Conflicting signals on inflation kept stocks mixed Thursday as investors abandoned riskier stocks and moved to safer blue-chip companies.  

A sharp drop in oil prices helped limit Wall Street's losses. 

A surprising increase in first-time jobless claims unnerved the market but also eased fears among some investors that inflation would rise as more workers enter the job market. 

The Labour Department reported a jump of 17,000 claims last week, to 327,000 - the highest level in two months. 

Inflation worries were bolstered, however, as the dollar fell to a nine-week low against the euro. 

That stole momentum from crude oil prices - another inflationary concern - which fell after Wednesday's sharp rise.  

A barrel of light crude settled at $53.54, down $1.23, on the New York Mercantile exchange. 

"This appears to be a fairly defensive market ... while investors figure out what to do next,'' said Stuart Freeman, chief equity strategist for A.G. Edwards & Sons. 

"I think the market is still jittery about inflation. There are no real drivers to push us solidly in any direction.'' 

The Dow Jones industrial average rose 45.89, or 0.42 percent, to 10,851.51. 

Broader stock indicators were narrowly mixed. 

The Standard & Poor's 500 index was up 2.24, or 0.19 percent, at 1,209.25, and the Nasdaq composite index lost 1.57, or 0.08 percent, to 2,059.72. 

The bond market made modest gains after a big selloff Wednesday. 

The yield on the 10-year Treasury note fell to 4.47 percent from Wednesday's eight-month high of 4.53 percent. 

"It's surprising bond yields haven't been this high beforehand, with seven interest rate hikes from the Fed,'' said Michael Palazzi, managing director of equity trading at SG Cowen Securities.  

"There are inflationary pressures, certainly, but they're good inflationary pressures because there's economic growth here.'' 

The technology sector was under scrutiny as investors looked at news from two major semiconductor companies. Dow component Intel Corp. edged a penny higher to $24.85 prior to its mid-quarter earnings update, due after the session. 

National Semiconductor Inc. was up $1.13 at $21.12 after the company beat analysts' profit forecasts by 5 cents per share in its latest earnings report. 

Microsoft Corp. announced it was purchasing privately held Groove Networks, which makes software for online work collaboration, for an undisclosed amount.  

Groove founder Ray Ozzie, one of the creators of Lotus Notes in the 1980s, will become Microsoft's chief technical officer, reporting to chairman Bill Gates. 

Microsoft rose 12 cents to $25.43. 

Toys R Us Inc. added 62 cents to $23.67 as The Wall Street Journal reported that a private investment group has made a $5 billion proposal to purchase the ailing toy retailer. 

The company has long proposed separating its profitable Babies R Us unit from the struggling toys unit, and selling the latter. 

Delta Air Lines Inc. said it would report a substantial loss for 2005, according to a regulatory filing.  

The third largest U.S. air carrier said its cash flow may not be enough to meet its needs by the end of the year. 

Delta, which blamed pension expenses and skyrocketing fuel costs for its fiscal crunch, tumbled 56 cents, or 11.5 percent, to $4.33 on the news. 

Declining issues outnumbered advancers by about 4 to 3 on the New York Stock Exchange, where volume was moderate. 

The Russell 2000 index of smaller companies was down 4.14, or 0.66 percent, at 626.94. - AP 

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