NEW YORK - A sluggish September continued for U.S. stocks as investors assessed the outlook for interest rates, the latest sanctions against Russia and volatile energy prices.
Stocks ended the day mixed after gains for dividend-rich utility stocks largely offset a slump in health care companies. Lululemon (LULU), the high-end yoga apparel maker, surged after reporting earnings that surpassed analyst's forecasts.
The stock market has had a slow start this month, and the Standard & Poor's 500 is on track to end the week with a loss for the first time in six weeks. Investors are struggling to find an impetus to push prices higher with the market close to all-time highs.
"The market might just be pausing here to digest and see what we have to propel it one way or the other," said Jeff Morris, Head of U.S. Equities at Standard Life Investments.
The Standard & Poor's 500 index rose 1.76 points, or 0.1 percent, to end at 1,997.45. The Dow Jones industrial average dropped 19.71 points, or 0.1 percent, closing at 17,049. The Nasdaq composite rose 5.28 points, or 0.1 percent, to finish at 4,591.81.
Stocks started the day lower, led by a big decline for energy stocks as the price of oil extended its fall from a day earlier. Oil futures turned higher throughout the morning as traders judged that new sanctions against Russia over its involvement in Ukraine might crimp supplies. As oil prices rebounded, so did energy stocks.
The price of oil rose $1.16 to close at $92.83 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange, after dropping close to $90 a barrel in early trading.
The stock market gains were led by utilities, which climbed 0.9 percent.
Health care stocks fell the most, declining 0.3 percent. The industry has been the best-performing sector this year, climbing 15.5 percent, compared to a gain of 8.1 percent for the broader index.
The Federal Reserve is never far from investors' minds, and many are already looking forward to next week's meeting of policymakers. The Fed is currently winding down its economic stimulus measures, and investors will be expecting an update on the economy and more insight into when the central bank might begin raising interest rates. The Fed concludes its latest two-day policy meeting next Wednesday.
"Interest rates have not been a headwind (for stocks) for some time now," said Jim Russell, a regional investment director at USBank. "We are entering into a period now where they will have to be considered again."
In currency trading, the dollar continued its ascent against the Japanese yen. The U.S. currency is at its highest level in six years against the yen. On Thursday one dollar bought 107.30 yen. The dollar fell to $1.292 against the euro.
Government bond prices were little changed. The yield on the 10-year Treasury note, which rises when prices fall, rose to 2.55 percent from 2.54 percent on Wednesday.
The price of gold fell $6.30 to $1,239 an ounce, silver fell 33 cents to $18.60 an ounce and copper fell two cents to $3.09 a pound.
In other energy trading, Brent crude, a benchmark for international oil used by many U.S. refineries, rose 4 cents to close at $98.08 on the ICE Futures exchange in London. Wholesale gasoline slipped 0.3 cent to close at $2.524 a gallon, and natural gas fell 13.1 cents to close at $3.823 per 1,000 cubic feet after the Energy Department reported a larger-than-expected increase in natural gas inventories.
Among individual stocks making big moves:
- Lululemon jumped $5.34, or 14 percent, to $43.73 after the troubled yoga-gear retailer reported earnings that beat analysts' expectations. The company also raised its full-year forecast. Lululemon has been trying to turn itself around since last spring, when it pulled one of its popular yoga pants from stores because they were too sheer.
- Pandora Media (P) rose 84 cents, or 3 percent, to $26.94. The streaming music company said it had agreed to a multiyear deal with BMG, a music rights management company. BMG represents the music rights of artists including John Legend and Bruno Mars.