Wall Street flat toward quarter end (Reuters)

March 31, 2011

NEW YORK (Reuters) – U.S. stocks were little changed on Thursday as a middling reading on jobless claims failed to dent expectations about Friday’s U.S. payrolls report for March as the quarter quietly draws to a close.

Initial claims for unemployment benefits slipped to 388,000 last week, compared with the 380,000 that economists had expected. But the government’s data showed the trend of labor market improvement is intact.

The data comes a day after an encouraging ADP private-sector jobs report and precedes Friday’s closely watched monthly employment report from the U.S. Labor Department. Economists polled by Thomson Reuters estimate that non-farm payrolls added 190,000 jobs in March.

“Non-farm payrolls tomorrow is big — 200,000 to 205,000 is probably the level that is being priced in right now,” said

Max Bublitz, chief investment strategist at SCM Advisors in San Francisco.

“We all freak out over the first number and kind of ignore the revisions but the fact is it is a very noisy number, and it’s a little bit of a crapshoot.”

The week has been marked by some of the year’s lowest volumes as traders opt to ride the quarter’s gainers, pushing the S&P 500 up 5.5 percent in the quarter.

But the benchmark S&P has been unable to hold gains around 1,330, a level that the index has been unable to break through despite several attempts in the past month.

“We are bouncing off that 1,332 level, which was kind of a double off the (March 2009) lows. We’ve struggled with it at times and it’s been kind of a grind here,” Bublitz said.

The Dow Jones industrial average (.DJI) rose 5.34 points, or 0.04 percent, to 12,355.95. The Standard & Poor’s 500 Index (.SPX) inched up 0.18 of a point, or 0.01 percent, to 1,328.45. The Nasdaq Composite Index (.IXIC) shed 1.22 points, or 0.04 percent, to 2,775.57.

Berkshire Hathaway’s Class B shares (BRKb.N) fell 1.9 percent to $83.84 a day after the resignation of David Sokol, the man widely seen as the leading successor to Warren Buffett to run Berkshire. Sokol resigned after Buffett revealed that Sokol had bought shares in chemical company Lubrizol Corp (LZ.N) before pushing Buffett to acquire it.

In an interview on CNBC, Sokol said he did nothing wrong in buying the shares.

Retailers ranked among the worst performers, dragged lower by Carmax Inc (KMX.N), which lost 7.4 percent to $32.02 after posting fourth-quarter earnings. The S&P Retail index (.RLX) lost almost 1 percent, while the Morgan Stanley retail index (.MVR) dropped 1.2 percent.

The Institute for Supply Management-Chicago said its index of Midwest business activity fell in March to 70.6 from 71.2 in February. The reading was near economists’ expectations and stocks reacted little.

(Reporting by Chuck Mikolajczak; Editing by Jan Paschal)

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