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U.S. stocks give up an early gain and turn lower

The Dow Jones industrial average was headed for its fourth loss in a row Thursday afternoon. Stocks had opened higher on better news about retail sales and the U.S. job market, then turned lower in late morning trading.

The Standard & Poor's 500 index fell 14 points to 1,854 as of 12:41 p.m. ET. The Dow Jones industrial average fell 140 points to 16,200. The Nasdaq composite dropped 44 points to 4,279.

Several companies that provide oil and gas offshore drilling services fell. Diamond Offshore Drilling fell $1.62, or 3.5 percent, to $44.76, while Noble shed $1.21, or 4 percent, to $29.15. Transocean lost $1.47, or 3.6 percent, to $39.32, and National Oilwell Varco slid $2.20, or 2.9 percent, to $75.11.

Dollar General fell $1.39, or 2.3 percent, to $57.90 after the company reported that its fourth-quarter earnings took a hit from harsh winter storms. It also issued a poor outlook for the year.

Eight of the 10 sectors in the S&P 500 index fell. Information technology lost the most. Utilities had the biggest gains. Investors tend to buy those stocks when they want to play it safe with lower-risk companies than pay steady dividends.

U.S. retail sales rose 0.3 percent in February as Americans spent more on autos, clothing and furniture, the Commerce Department reported. Spending had fallen 0.6 percent in January. The increase suggests that spending has started to recover after being tempered by snowstorms and freezing temperatures that blanketed much of the country.

Applications for unemployment benefits dropped 9,000 last week to 315,000. Applications are a rough proxy for layoffs. The declines indicate companies are confident enough about the economy to keep their staffs. Employers are hiring more after harsh winter weather lowered job gains in January and December.

Despite the positive retail sales and labor market reports, investors remain concerned about the course of China's economy and the possibility of a broader fallout from the conflict in Ukraine, said Michael Levine, a portfolio manager at Oppenheimer Funds.

"Those two things are tempering enthusiasm right now," he said.

Amazon gained $6.93, or 1.9 percent, to $377.5 after th e company raised the price of its popular Prime membership to $99 per year, an increase of $20. It was the first price increase since the online retailer introduced its Prime membership program, which includes two-day free shipping on many products, in 2005.

The yield on the 10-year Treasury note tumbled to 2.69 percent from 2.73 percent late Wednesday as bond prices rose. The yield affects rates on mortgages and other consumer loans.

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