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US: Wall Street holds on after bumpy week


[NEW YORK] Another volatile week had investors on Wall Street clinging to gains on Thursday ahead of a long holiday weekend.

Facing a major data release - the March jobs market report - on Friday when markets are closed for the Easter holiday, traders pushed shares higher Thursday, showing a lack of deep concern over the direction of the economy and geopolitics elsewhere.

At the end of the four day trading week, the Dow Jones Industrial Average added 0.29 per cent to 17,763.24. The S&P 500 also gained 0.29 per cent, finishing at 2,066.96. The Nasdaq Composite fell a bare 0.1 per cent, finishing the week at 4,886.94.

Traders were still looking for signs in economic data that will point to when the Federal Reserve might start raising interest rates - as early as June, or later in the year as an increasing number of analysts now suspect.

They also eyed the negotiations over Greece's bailout in Europe, amid nervousness that a breakdown of talks could spark, in the worst case, a massive debt default by Athens and the country's exit from the eurozone.

But Hinsdale Associates' Bill Lynch said the holiday mood had overtaken the market.

"Volumes are light and it's kind of a lackluster day. You can't read too much into today's action. This is this time of year when people go on spring break," he said.

Data during the week was mixed. Employment-related numbers, including the ADP March estimate and jobless claims, pointed towards a solid report on Friday.

In the February trade report, exports and imports were down, both because of cheaper oil prices and the West Coast ports slowdown.

The result was the lowest monthly deficit in five years, a plus for growth, but analysts said the trend, including whether the strong dollar is hurting exporters, will be clearer in March and April.

On the down side, construction spending and manufacturing data were weak in February, though weather and the ports slowdown could have distorted the trend.

Sam Stovall of Standard & Poor's said the market, like the data, remains indecisive.

"There is a tug-of-war between bulls and bears, the bears talking about how weak the economy is. But a weak economy could be good in that it could push the Fed to delay a rate hike," he said.

"We've been up six years and one month, and a bull market typically lasts four-and-a-half years, so investors feel like they're playing musical chairs and are preparing themselves for when the music will stop." But Chris Low of FTN Financial said traders were no longer totally fixated on the date for the Fed's first rate hike.

"This is the week the markets came to terms with the Fed. There was volatility just after the (Fed policy board) meeting, but traders are now comfortable with their portfolio positioning."