Stocks Edged Up Ahead of Jobs Report

U.S. stocks closed with minor gains for two of the three benchmark indexes on Thursday, with investors trading cautiously ahead of Friday’s jobs report. The Dow Jones Industrial Average ended down 9.38 points, or 0.07%, to 12,707.08. The S&P 500 edged up 1.45 point, or 0.11%, to 1,325.54. The Nasdaq Composite added 11.41 points, or 0.40%, to 2,859.68.

The U.S. added a modest number of jobs in January, the government is expected to report Friday, but the first month of the year is notoriously hard to read because of unusual factors that distort the data. The economy created 121,000 jobs last month and the unemployment rate likely held steady at 8.5%. The Labor Department will release the jobs report at 8:30 a.m. Eastern.

The Federal Reserve chairman, Ben S. Bernanke, renewed his advocacy Thursday for Congress to confront “the urgent issue of fiscal sustainability” by enacting a plan to reduce the federal debt.

The average rate on the 30-year fixed mortgage fell this week to a record low, the ninth time that has happened in the last year. Mortgage buyer Freddie Mac said Thursday that the rate on the 30-year loan dropped to 3.87 percent this week. That below the previous record of 3.88 hit two weeks ago.

Merck & Co. swung to a fourth-quarter profit because of lower restructuring and other charges and higher sales of most of its key drugs. Net income was $1.51 billion, or 49 cents per share. A year earlier, Merck lost $531 million, or 17 cents a share.  Revenue rose 1.6 percent $12.29 billion, $200 million below expectations.

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