By Caroline Valetkevitch
NEW YORK (Reuters) - A late rebound in energy shares helped U.S. stocks end a choppy session a tad higher on Thursday ahead of the U.S. monthly jobs report.
The day marked the eight-year anniversary of the current bull market, the second-longest ever. Some strategists expect it to continue with the help of stronger earnings, lower taxes and a corporate-friendly administration in Washington.
The S&P 500's slight gain came after three straight days of losses. A frenetic post-election rally on bets of reduced regulation and tax cuts under President Donald Trump has been losing steam as investors fret over valuations and the possibility of the Federal Reserve raising rates more aggressively.
The market is going through a “healthy consolidation” following the recent streak of record highs, said Lindsey Bell, investment strategist at CFRA Research in New York.
"Consolidation after reaching a new high is not a bad thing,” she said. “The market is waiting on the employment number (Friday) and the FOMC meeting next week."
The S&P 500 energy index (.SPNY) rose 0.6 percent, snapping two days of big losses, even as crude prices slid nearly 2 percent.
Helping the market early in the day was a report that showed the number of Americans applying for unemployment benefits rose to 243,000 last week, but remained below 300,000 for the 105th week.
Friday's nonfarm payrolls report is expected to show 190,000 jobs were added in the U.S. private and public sectors in February.
The Dow Jones Industrial Average (.DJI) ended up 2.46 points, or 0.01 percent, to 20,858.19, the S&P 500 (.SPX) gained 1.89 points, or 0.08 percent, to 2,364.87 and the Nasdaq Composite (.IXIC) added 1.26 points, or 0.02 percent, to 5,838.81.
Stronger economic data has prompted hawkish rhetoric from several Fed officials, leading traders to price in a near 90-percent chance of a quarter-point rate increase next week.
The S&P 500 financial index (.SPSY), which had boosted the market earlier in the day, cut gains in afternoon trading and ended up 0.3 percent.
Asked whether Trump still backs his campaign pledge to restore the Glass-Steagall Act, White House spokesman Sean Spicer said that he did. The law, which separated commercial and investment banking, was repealed in 1999 and, if reinstated, would mainly apply to larger banks.
"Financials have been a massive leadership group, and a lot of it has been built on deregulation" promises, said Michael O’Rourke, chief market strategist at JonesTrading in Greenwich, Connecticut.
"Maybe the sector has gotten ahead of itself," he said, adding that more details are needed from the new administration.
The European Central Bank stood firm on its stimulus program but said there was no longer a sense of urgency in taking further action to counter deflation.
Johnson & Johnson (JNJ.N) was up 1.5 percent after Jefferies raised its price target on the healthcare conglomerate's stock.
About 7 billion shares changed hands on U.S. exchanges, roughly matching the daily average for the past 20 trading days, according to Thomson Reuters data.
NYSE declining issues outnumbered advancing ones by a 2.40-to-1 ratio; on Nasdaq, a 1.41-to-1 ratio favored decliners.
The S&P 500 posted 24 new 52-week highs and 14 new lows; the Nasdaq Composite recorded 64 new highs and 58 new lows.
(Additional reporting by Rodrigo Campos in New York and Yashaswini Swamynathan in Bengaluru; Editing by Sriraj Kalluvila and Nick Zieminski)