Stocks edged mostly higher Thursday afternoon after spending much of the morning shifting between small gains and losses. Investors waded through a mixed crop of U.S. company earnings that drove up shares for Morgan Stanley and General Electric even as Google, IBM and UnitedHealth declined.
KEEPING SCORE: The Standard & Poor's 500 index rose four points, or 0.2 percent, to 1,866 as of 3:09 p.m. Eastern Time. The Dow Jones industrial average edged up 11 points to 16,435. The Nasdaq composite added 17 points, or 0.2 percent, to 4,103. U.S. markets will be closed for Good Friday.
EARNINGS, THE GOOD: General Electric described the economic situation as "positive" and said its industrial division was doing well. PepsiCo reported higher income as the company slashed costs and sold more snacks around the world. GE gained 61 cents, or 2.3 percent, to $26.73, while PepsiCo added 56 cents to $85.33.
Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley each reported higher income than financial analysts had forecast. Goldman rose 66 cents, or 0.4 percent, to $157.90. Morgan Stanley added $1.01, or 3.4 percent, to $30.90.
EARNINGS, THE NOT SO GOOD: Google and IBM each posted steep declines after reporting results late Thursday that disappointed investors. Google lost $16.50, or 2.9 percent, to $547.38, and IBM fell $6.27, or 3.2 percent, to $190.12. Mattel fell 37 cents, or 1 percent, to $37.51 after the toy maker said weak sales of Barbie dolls and markdowns to clear out inventory from a sluggish holiday season led to an unexpected loss in the first three months of the year.
CHERRY PICKING: More stocks rose than fell on the New York Stock Exchange. Thursday's trading reflected buying and selling on earnings news, rather than a broader market theme taking hold, said Paul Mangus, head of equity research and strategy for Wells Fargo Private Bank.
"Going into this quarter, expectations are low, so if you disappoint on low expectations you're likely to be penalized," Mangus said. "However, they also present the opportunity for some significant beats because the estimates are that low."
UNHEALTHY RESULTS: Several large health insurance stocks fell after UnitedHealth Group said its income slid 8 percent in the first quarter as fees and funding cuts from the health care overhaul dented its performance. UnitedHealth shed $2.70, or 3.5 percent, to $75.46. WellPoint slid $3.11 or 3.3 percent to $92.52, while Humana fell $3.23, or 3 percent to $105.56. Aetna dropped $2, or 2.9 percent to $67.87.
TAKEAWAY: Despite Google, UnitedHealth and other high-profile stocks trading lower on earnings Thursday, the latest wave of quarterly results has been positive, said John Fox, director of research at Fenimore Asset Management.
"The overall read across five or 10 or 15 earnings reports is positive," Fox said, noting that many companies have reaffirmed their earnings forecasts for the year. "The fundamental underpinnings are good, and I'm not hearing anything from management that changes that."
BAD READ: Leonard Riggio, founder and largest shareholder of Barnes & Noble, disclosed Thursday that he sold 3.7 million shares in the bookseller. It's his second such move in five months. Investors followed in Riggio's example, sending Barnes & Noble shares down $2.33, or 12.5 percent, to $16.26.
THE ECONOMY: The number of people seeking U.S. unemployment benefits last week rose 2,000 to 304,000. That was less than analysts were expecting and a sign that layoffs aren't increasing rapidly. The number of weekly claims continues to be near pre-recession levels despite the slight increase.
MORE EARNINGS AHEAD: Investors will be looking at more company earnings news for the next couple of weeks as they try to assess whether the impact of a severe winter has begun to ease.
"The companies that would be most impacted by that have yet to report," Mangus said, adding that homebuilders, automakers and consumer discretionary companies should provide a better read on whether consumer demand has rebounded as the winter weather has faded.
BOND TRADING: Bond prices fell. The yield on the 10-year Treasury note rose to 2.72 percent after reaching 2.63 percent late Wednesday.