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​Led by banks, stocks inch higher

NEW YORK - U.S. stocks are wavering between small gains and losses Thursday afternoon. Banks are rising as they continue to report their first-quarter results, and airlines are rising after Delta said low fuel costs boosted its results. Consumer stocks are struggling.

The Dow Jones industrial average added 20 points, or 0.1 percent, to 17,928 as of 3:36 p.m. ET. The Standard & Poor's 500 index rose 1 point to 2,084. The Nasdaq composite was virtually unchanged at 4,948. Stocks made big jumps the last two days to reach their highest levels this year.

Banks reported mixed results, as they've been hurt by loans to energy companies and trading results from trading. But since Wall Street was braced for even worse news, those stocks made some of the biggest gains on the market. Bank of America picked up 40 cents, or 2.9 percent, to $14.19, as its results met investor expectations.

First Republic Bank jumped $2.38, or 3.5 percent, to $69.88 after the San Francisco bank reported a bigger-than-expected profit. Fifth Third Bank, another regional bank, gained 34 cents or 2 percent, to $17.75.

Wells Fargo's profit fell as it set aside more money to cover its struggling portfolio of oil and gas loans. The stock lost 1 cent to $49.02.

Bank stocks jumped Wednesday after JPMorgan Chase, the largest U.S. bank, reported results that beat expectations. They are still the worst-performing stocks on the S&P 500 this year.

JJ Kinahan, chief strategist for TD Ameritrade, said banks have slashed their spending benefited as more people bought homes and consumers and businesses took out more loans.

"If businesses are starting to expand a little bit, if the consumer is out there trying to buy housing, (lending) is a steady source of income for these institutions," he said. Investors feared "this was going to be an absolutely disastrous earnings season," he said.

Delta Air Lines' first-quarter profit jumped 27 percent, helped by low fuel costs. Delta's stock gained 61 cents, or 1.3 percent, to $48.65. American Airlines rose $1.12, or 3.3 percent, to $41.25 and United added $1.44, or 2.6 percent, to $57.02. JetBlue and Southwest also climbed.

Data storage company Seagate Technology said its third-quarter profit margins and revenue will be lower than expected. The company said it's seeing lower demand for some kinds of hard disk drives. Its stock slumped $6.86, or 20.2 percent, to $27.07. Competitor Western Digital fell $3.11, or 6.9 percent, to $41.69 and NetApp lost $1.04, or 3.9 percent, to $25.66.

Pier 1 Imports is falling after the home decor company gave a shaky outlook for the first half of its fiscal year. Pier 1 said it expects "pressure" on its profit and sales because of marketing expenses, including a return to TV advertising, as well as price markdowns. The stock gave up 34 cents, or 4.7 percent, to $7.

Claims for unemployment benefits dropped sharply last week and reached their lowest level since 1973. They've been at low levels for a year, which indicates the job market is healthy and employers aren't letting go of workers. That suggests many companies see the recent slowdown as temporary.

Benchmark U.S. crude oil fell 26 cents to $41.50 a barrel in New York. Brent crude, the international standard, gave up 34 cents to $43.84 a barrel in London.

Gold fell $21.80, or 1.7 percent, to $1,226.50 an ounce. Silver fell 15 cents to $16.17 an ounce. Copper was unchanged at $2.17 a pound.

Wholesale gasoline fell 2 cents to $1.51 a gallon. Heating oil dipped 1 cent to $1.25 a gallon. Natural gas fell 7 cents, or 3 percent, to $1.97 per 1,000 cubic feet.

In Europe, Germany's DAX was up 0.7 percent while the CAC-40 in France rose 0.5 percent. The FTSE 100 index in Britain held steady. Japan's benchmark Nikkei 225 closed 3.2 percent higher as the yen weakened slightly against the dollar. Hong Kong's Hang Seng gained 0.8 percent and South Korea's KOSPI climbed 1.7 percent.

Bond prices slipped. The yield on the 10-year U.S. Treasury note rose to 1.78 percent from 1.77 percent. The euro fell to $1.1268 from $1.1283 and the dollar edged up to 109.25 yen from 109.24 yen.