By Angela Moon
NEW YORK (Reuters) - U.S. stocks mostly rose on Thursday, with the S&P 500 closing at yet another record on better-than-expected jobless claims data and the European Central Bank's move to keep rates unchanged.
But the overall sentiment was cautious ahead of Friday's all-important U.S. nonfarm payrolls report and tensions between Ukraine and Russia.
The CBOE Volatility Index or VIX (.VIX), Wall Street's so-called fear gauge, ended up 2.3 percent at 14.21.The VIX generally moves inversely to the performance of the S&P 500 and is often used to hedge against a market decline.
Trading volume was also lower than average, with about 6.4 billion shares traded on U.S. exchanges, according to data from BATS Global Markets, below the daily average of about 7 billion in the past month.
"We had a bit of a selloff in midday session and late afternoon, but the fact the S&P 500 managed to set another record shows how much resistance this market has to geopolitical overhang that is clearly not over, resistance to bad news," said Tim Ghriskey, chief investment officer of Solaris Asset Management in Bedford Hills, New York.
Thursday's milestone marked the S&P 500's fourth record closing high over the past six sessions.
Weekly applications for U.S. unemployment insurance fell to 323,000, the lowest in three months, a sign of strength in a labor market that has been hobbled by severe weather. New orders for U.S. factory goods, however, fell more than expected in January and shipments also slipped, adding to signs of a recent slowdown in manufacturing activity.
Friday's nonfarm payrolls report, due at 8:30 a.m. EST, is likely to show job growth in the United States picked up enough in February to encourage the Federal Reserve to continue scaling back its monetary stimulus. But the gain was likely to be tepid, given the unrelentingly harsh winter.
The day's biggest gainers were stocks in basic materials, financial and industrial sectors, often associated with strong economic fundamentals. The S&P basic materials index (.SPLRCM) was up 0.4 percent, the S&P financial index (.SPSY) was up 0.7 percent and the S&P industrials index (.SPLRCI) was up 0.6 percent.
But the Nasdaq 100 (.NDX) fell 0.2 percent, led lower by Staples (SPLS), which lost 15.3 percent to $11.35. The largest U.S. office supplies retailer forecast a decline in sales. Staples also said it would close up to 225 stores in the United States and Canada by 2015.
The Dow Jones industrial average (^DJI) rose 61.71 points or 0.38 percent, to end at 16,421.89. The S&P 500 (^GSPC) gained 3.22 points or 0.17 percent, to finish at 1,877.03. The Nasdaq Composite (^IXIC) dropped 5.848 points or 0.13 percent, to close at 4,352.125.
Crimea's parliament voted to join Russia and its Moscow-backed government set a referendum for 10 days' time on the decision in a dramatic escalation of the crisis in the Ukrainian Black Sea peninsula.
U.S. President Barack Obama took steps to punish those involved in threatening Ukraine while European Union leaders agreed to suspend visa and investment talks with Russia.
An index of Moscow stocks (.MCX) lost more than 2 percent after the vote in Crimea, but pared the losses and closed down 1 percent. The ruble weakened 0.3 percent versus the U.S. dollar. A U.S.-traded Russian ETF (RSX.P) fell 1.1 percent to $23.37.
The European Central Bank decided not to take any action at its meeting on Thursday because economic and monetary conditions had not changed enough to warrant it. The euro hit its highest level against the U.S. dollar since late December.
Among individual stocks, Costco Wholesale Corp (COST) dropped 2.8 percent to $113.26 after the warehouse retailer reported a bigger-than-expected 15 percent decline in quarterly profit as unusually deep discounting in the holiday shopping season hurt margins.
(Editing by Nick Zieminski and Jan Paschal)