Record oil prices mute modest gains

NEW YORK – Stocks managed modest gains Thursday as investors saw a series of corporate acquisitions as a chance to pick up bargains in an otherwise difficult market. Another record high for oil prices muted the gains.

General Electric Co.’s $1.6 billion investment in a Turkish bank and Johnson Controls Inc.’s takeover of York International Corp. assured investors that corporate America is still willing to spend money to expand, even in uncertain economic times.

Yet oil again weighed on investors. Crude futures reached $68 per barrel overnight and settled at a record high for a second straight session – feeding Wall Street’s chronic concerns about a slowdown in consumer spending and economic growth. A barrel of light crude settled at $67.49, up 17 cents, on the New York Mercantile Exchange.

“Oil prices at these levels are providing all kinds of dislocation issues for stocks,” said Joseph Battipaglia, chief investment officer at Ryan Beck & Co. “Earnings and the economic data are OK, but with oil where it is, the market is unable to make a decision, long or short, and there’s certainly no real catalyst for buying.”

The Dow Jones industrial average rose 15.76, or 0.15 percent, to 10,450.63.

Broader stock indicators also closed slightly higher. The Standard & Poor’s 500 index gained 2.78, or 0.23 percent, to 1,212.37, and the Nasdaq composite index climbed 5.46, or 0.26 percent, to 2,134.37.

Bonds traded in a narrow range, with the yield on the 10-year Treasury note slipping to 4.16 percent from 4.17 percent late Wednesday. The dollar lost ground against most major currencies, while gold prices rose.

A drop in unemployment claims also helped spur buying. The Labor Department reported that first-time jobless claims dropped by 4,000 to 315,000 last week, and that the four-week average of claims fell to its lowest level in four years.

Yet oil remained the focus, and some analysts wondered whether the markets could stage any kind of substantive rally with crude futures at record levels and the Federal Reserve undeterred in its policy of slow, steady interest hikes.

“Oil is a huge concern, interest rates are a huge concern, and you have to be concerned about the two of them together,” said Chris Johnson, manager of quantitative analysis at Schaeffer’s Investment Research in Cincinnati. “There’s room to run to the downside, but I have a hard time seeing a lot of upside right now.

The Russell 2000 index of smaller companies rose 2.69, or 0.41 percent, to 657.70.

Overseas, Japan’s Nikkei stock average fell 0.78 percent. In Europe, Britain’s FTSE 100 closed down 0.37 percent, France’s CAC-40 lost 1.04 percent for the session, and Germany’s DAX index tumbled 1.22 percent.

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