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US: Feeble finish to a tempestuous quarter on Wall Street


[NEW YORK] Wall Street ended the first quarter with a whimper on Thursday after a seven-week rally that rescued the S&P 500 from its worst start to a year since 2009.

Angst about a troubled global economy drove a steep selloff in stocks in January, before a rebound in oil prices cleared the way for the S&P's 13-per cent recovery since mid-February that has left the index up 0.8 per cent for 2016.

But Thursday's trading was languid, with S&P and the Dow Jones industrial average dipping after three days of gains, even as some fund managers snapped up stocks at the end of March and the quarter.

Data on Thursday showed US jobless claims rose unexpectedly last week but remained well below the 300,000 mark, denoting a healthy labor market.

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Critical US non-farm payrolls data will be in sharp focus on Friday and provide investors a clearer reading on the economy. "The job number looks like it's going to be positive on Friday, so you'll get a little uptake there," said Phil Blancato, head of Ladenburg Thalmann Asset Management in New York.

The Dow Jones industrial average ended 0.18 per cent lower at 17,685.09 points and the S&P 500 lost 0.2 per cent to 2,059.74.

The Nasdaq Composite edged up 0.01 per cent to 4,869.85.

So far in 2016, the Dow has gained 1.5 per cent and the Nasdaq is down 2.7 per cent.

On Thursday, nine of the 10 major S&P sectors were lower, with a 0.88 per cent decline in the materials sector weighing most.

Investors' nerves were soothed this week by US Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen's comments that the central bank should be cautious about raising interest rates.

Wall Street is also concerned about tepid corporate earnings and will keep a close eye on the quarterly reports that start rolling in next month.

Analysts expect S&P 500 companies' first-quarter earnings to fall 7 per cent year over year, with energy companies weighing heavily.

Shares of Best Buy added 2.76 per cent after Barclays initiated coverage of the stock with an "overweight" rating.

Even though the S&P ended lower for the day, advancing issues outnumbered decliners on the NYSE by 1,665 to 1,356. On the Nasdaq, 1,444 issues fell and 1,397 advanced.

The S&P 500 index showed 40 new 52-week highs and one new low, while the Nasdaq recorded 53 new highs and 21 new lows.

About 6.8 billion shares changed hands on US exchanges, below the 7.7 billion daily average for the past 20 trading days, according to Thomson Reuters data.