Stocks Finish Modestly Higher

The Dow was led higher by Altria and the Nasdaq eked out a small gain despite cautious comments from leading technology names

Stocks finished with modest gains on Thursday. The Dow was led by strength in cigarette maker Altria (MO ), while the Nasdaq shrugging off cautious comments from Internet search engine Google (GOOG ) and chipmaker Applied Materials (AMAT ). A fall in oil prices below $46 a barrel bolstered equities.

The Dow Jones industrial average rose 22.98 points, or 0.22%, to 10,572.55. The broader Standard & Poor's 500 index was up 1.62 points, or 0.14%, to 1,183.56. The Nasdaq composite index added 4.60 points, or 0.22%, to 2,104.28.

Looking ahead, investors will have more earnings reports to digest on Friday. Among the companies due to report are retailer Cost Plus (CPWM ), recorded-music outfit EMI Group (EMIPY ) and food concern J. M. Smucker (SJM ).

There are no major economic reports due out on Friday.

On Thursday, Prudential and Goldman Sachs both raised their investment ratings on Altria, the name behind Marlboro cigarettes, citing optimism that the outfit will favorably resolve its tobacco litigation.

Keeping a lid on gains in the Dow was fast food giant McDonald's (MCD ), which fell on a report that first-round screening tests returned "inconclusive" results for mad cow disease from one animal in the U.S., with additional tests underway.

In Nasdaq action, Google declined after saying in an SEC filing that it expects that its revenue growth rates will decline over time. The shares have been especially volatile since the initial public offering in August.

Chip-equipment maker Applied Materials fell after it said its third quarter earnings would be between 15 cents to 16 cents, less than the 24 cents Wall Street had expected.

Economic news Thursday was mixed. U.S. initial jobless claims fell 3,000 to 334,000 for the week ended Nov. 13 and just over the expected 330,000 reading for the week. The less volatile, 4-week moving average edged up to 338,250 from the revised 337,250 reading the week before.

Meanwhile, the Conference Board's Index of Leading Economic Indicators slipped 0.3% in October to 115.1, worse than market estimates, vs. the 0.1% (115.4) decline seen the prior month. The Conference Board said the index is pointing to economic slowing in the months ahead -- but is not indicating that a recession is in the works.

The Philadelphia Fed index of manufacturing in the Mid-Atlantic region slowed to a lower than expected 20.7 level in November from 28.5 in October, down from the 6-month average of 26.0. Yhe market expected a reading of 24.0.

Several retailing names were lower after reporting results on Thursday. Apparel store operator Limited Brands (LTD ) fell after posting 16 cents, vs. 25 cents third-quarter earnings per share despite a 1% same-store sales rise and a 2.4% total sales rise.

Women's accessories merchant Claire's Stores (CLE ) declined after posting 27 cents, vs. 26 cents third-quarter earnings per share on a 12% revenue rise. The company cut its fourth-quarter revenue forecast, but raised its quarterly dividend 13%.

And upscale kitchenware seller Williams-Sonoma (WSM ) posted 24 cents, vs. 20 cents third-quarter earnings per share on a 14% revenue rise. The company raised its fiscal 2005 earnings per share forecast. The shares were lower.

Shares of online DVD rental outfit NetFlix (NFLX ) moved higher after the company said it sees 3 cents to 8 cents fourth-quarter earnings per share (GAAP) on revenue of $139 million to $143 million. It says subscriber growth is exceeding earlier expectations, and churn appears to be heading toward historical lows.

In other stocks news, Micron Technologies (MU ) was lower after CS First Boston downgraded the stock to neutral from outperform.

Medical-device maker Medtronic (MDT ) declined after Piper Jaffray cut its rating on the stock to market perform from outperform after the company's second quarter earnings of 44 cents missed the 45 cents expected.

Among the companies expected to release earnings after Thursday's market close: media giant Disney (DIS ), apparel retailer Gap (GPS ), and technology names Autodesk (ADSK ) and Novell (NOVL ).

Treasury Market

Treasury prices reversed course to close mostly higher. Prices had been stuck in the red for much of the session following the dip in jobless claims and the slide in leading economic indicators. The 10-year note yield dipped to 4.12%.

Meanwhile, the dollar was rebounding from record lows vs. the euro before Friday's G20 summit in Berlin. The dollar's move higher prompted a correction in gold prices from 16-year highs reached Wednesday.

World Markets

Eurpoean markets closed mixed on Thursday. London's Financial Times-Stock Exchange 100 index was up 9.40 points, or 0.20%, to 4,805.30, even though U.K. retail sales fell by a more than expected 0.4% in October, productivity slipped, and public sector borrowing rose. Vodafone was higher after Credit Suisse raised its share price forecast. SABMiller was higher after reporting its fiscal first-half profit more than doubled.

Germany's DAX Index was off 4.73 points, or 0.11%, to 4,178.68 as oil prices fluctuated in a narrow range, while Chancellor Schroeder pushed for more transparency in oil trading. SAP was lower after its chief financial officer said the company may need until 2007 to reach a target for a 30% operating margin.

In Paris, the CAC 40 index was off 13.75 points, or 0.36%, to 3,830.39. Credit Agricole was lower after J.P. Morgan cut its rating on stock to underweight from neutral, while Cap Gemini was higher after Deutsche Bank added the stock to its focus list.

Asian markets finished lower on Thursday. Japan's Nikkei 225 fell 48.87 points, or 0.44%, to close at 11,082.42. Exporters slipped after the dollar fell to a near eight-month low against the yen. Automakers were hardest hit, with Toyota Motor and Honda Motor slumping nearly 2%.

In Hong Kong, the Hang Seng index declined 25.16 points, or 0.18%, to close at 13,799.82.

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