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Mixed earnings results put brakes on rally

NEW YORK – Wall Street finished an erratic session mixed Thursday after an uneven batch of earnings reports made investors cautious about buying stocks. Disappointing economic readings added to the market’s uneasiness a day after a big rally.

The market grew jittery after the Philadelphia Federal Reserve said regional manufacturing weakened further in April. The index of manufacturing activity fell to a negative 24.9 from a negative 17.4 in March. The survey found most manufacturing executives were “cautiously optimistic” about future activity, but a report of higher unemployment claims reinforced the market’s recession worries.

Merrill Lynch & Co. reported a first-quarter loss of $2.14 billion, a shortfall that was wider than the average analyst estimate. The loss came after the world’s largest brokerage wrote down the value of assets tied to mortgages and leveraged loans by several billion dollars. The company also said it would eliminate 3,000 more jobs, for a total of 4,000 in the latest round of cuts. However, Merrill chief executive John Thain said during a conference call that business conditions in April appear better than in the first quarter. The stock finished higher.

Merrill’s report followed a larger-than-anticipated rise in IBM Corp.’s quarterly earnings, but there were also disappointing results from Nokia Corp., the world’s biggest mobile phone company, and drug maker Pfizer Inc.

Dan Laufenberg, chief economist for Ameriprise Financial, said the market remains cautious, though less so than in recent weeks and months.

“The market is going to go up and down. When you have nice moves like you had (Wednesday) and you hold on to most of that gain I think that tends to be a more positive signal,” he said.

The Dow Jones industrial average was little changed, edging up 1.22, or 0.01 percent, to 12,620.49, after fluctuating throughout the session.

Broader stock indicators were mixed. The Standard & Poor’s 500 index advanced 0.85, or 0.06 percent, to 1,365.56, while the Nasdaq composite index fell 8.28, or 0.35 percent, to 2,341.83.

Advancing issues narrowly outnumbered decliners on the New York Stock Exchange, where consolidated volume came to 3.6 billion shares, compared with 4.1 billion traded Wednesday.

Government bonds fell. The 10-year Treasury note’s yield, which moves opposite its price, rose to 3.73 percent from 3.71 percent late Wednesday.

Oil prices set another record high overnight, but crude fell 7 cents from Wednesday’s close to settle at $114.86 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange, the contract’s first closing decline in a week.

Gold prices fell, while the dollar generally rose against other major currencies.

The Russell 2000 index of smaller companies fell 5.39, or 0.76 percent, to 708.00.

Overseas, Japan’s Nikkei stock average rose 1.92 percent. Britain’s FTSE 100 closed down 1.09 percent, Germany’s DAX index fell 0.31 percent, and France’s CAC-40 rose 0.15 percent.