Still meandering, stocks flip between small gains and losses

FILE - In this Wednesday, July 8, 2015, file photo, Federal Hall's George Washington statue stands near the flag-covered pillars of the New York Stock Exchange. Stocks are rising in early trading on Wall Street, Thursday, Aug. 24, 2017, after several retailers reported earnings that were far better than analysts were expecting. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews, File)

NEW YORK — Stocks flipped between modest gains and losses on Thursday, the latest meandering course for a market that's been pushed in many directions the last few weeks.

Retailers were big winners after a wide variety said they earned bigger profits last quarter than Wall Street forecast. Food companies struggled after the makers of Spam and Folgers coffee reported weaker results than analysts had expected.

KEEPING SCORE: The Standard & Poor's 500 index was down nearly 4 points, or 0.1 percent, to 2,440, as of noon Eastern time. Through the morning, it vacillated between a gain of 0.3 percent and a loss of 0.3 percent.

The Dow Jones industrial average fell 15 points, or 0.1 percent, to 21,797, the Nasdaq composite fell 20 points, or 0.3 percent, to 6,258 and the Russell 2000 index of small-cap stocks rose nearly 6 points, or 0.4 percent, to 1,375.

UP AND DOWN AND BACK AGAIN: The S&P 500 has been bouncing up and down since setting a record high earlier this month. Helping stocks has been a better-than-expected earnings reporting season, and companies in the S&P 500 have reported stronger profit for the spring quarter than analysts forecast, along with healthier revenue.

Hurting stocks have been worries about politics both in Washington and abroad. Doubts are rising about how much help the Republican-led White House and Congress can provide for businesses, and several crucial deadlines are coming up that could damage the economy, including a vote to avert a default on the national debt.

This week has also featured fewer trades on the stock market than usual, with few market-moving events on the calendar. That may be exacerbating moves for the market. For all the noise, though, the S&P 500 is still within 1.5 percent of its record.

CENTRAL BANK WATCH: One event that could capture the market's attention is a symposium of central bankers in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, which begins Thursday. Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen and European Central Bank President Mario Draghi are both due to speak. Few analysts expect to hear major surprises.

JAMMED: J.M. Smucker fell to the biggest loss in the S&P 500 after reporting weaker profit for the latest quarter than Wall Street expected. It cited weaker-than-expected sales for Folgers coffee, and it also lowered the range for its forecast of full-year profit. The stock dropped $8.69, or 7.3 percent, to $110.16.

SPAMMED: Hormel Foods fell after it cut its forecast for full-year earnings due to higher costs for pork bellies and other ingredients. It also reported weaker earnings for the latest quarter than analysts expected, due in part to a soft quarter for Muscle Milk and other products. Its stock lost $2.08, or 6.1 percent, to $31.84.

DAZZLING: Signet Jewelers jumped to the biggest gain in the S&P 500 after strong sales of bracelets, rings and necklaces helped it report bigger revenue and profit for the latest quarter than analysts expected. Signet also said it was acquiring R2Net, an online jewelry retailer, for $328 million in cash.

Signet's stock jumped $10.61, or 20.4 percent, to $62.50.

A TREE GROWS: Dollar Tree, whose stores sell $1 towels and $1 Champagne flutes, surged after it reported stronger earnings than Wall Street forecast. Customers bought more at each store visit than they did a year ago, and the company raised its forecast for profit this year. Dollar Tree's stock rose $6.80, or 9.1 percent, to $81.12.

ECONOMIC UPDATES: A report from the National Association of Realtors showed that sales of previously occupied homes weakened last month, contrary to economists' expectations for growth.

More encouraging was a report showing that fewer workers filed for unemployment last week than economists expected, which could be a sign that the job market remains solid.

MARKETS ABROAD: France's CAC 40 was close to flat, the FTSE 100 in London gained 0.3 percent and Germany's DAX index climbed 0.1 percent. Japan's Nikkei 225 index fell 0.4 percent, the Hang Seng in Hong Kong rose 0.4 percent and South Korea's Kospi index gained 0.4 percent.

YIELDS: The yield on the 10-year Treasury rose to 2.18 percent from 2.17 percent late Wednesday. The two-year yield inched up to 1.32 percent from 1.31 percent, and the 30-year yield climbed to 2.76 percent from 2.75 percent.

CURRENCIES: The dollar rose to 109.32 to Japanese yen from 109.01 yen late Wednesday. The euro fell to $1.1803 from $1.1821, and the British pound slipped to $1.2802 from $1.2804.

COMMODITIES: Benchmark U.S. crude fell $1.03, or 2.1 percent, to $47.38 per barrel. Brent crude, the international standard, fell 74 cents to $51.83.

Natural gas added 1 cent to $2.94 per 1,000 cubic feet, heating oil was close to flat at $1.62 per gallon and wholesale gasoline rose 2 cents to $1.54 per gallon.

Gold lost $1.60 to $1,293.10 per ounce, silver fell 8 cents to $16.97 per ounce and copper added 5 cents to $3.03 per pound.

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