NEW YORK — A surprisingly poor signal on the jobs market sent stocks slightly lower Thursday as investors remained worried about a lack of hiring.
The modest drop came after the Labor Department said first-time claims for unemployment benefits rose unexpectedly last week.
Investors tried to muster a late-day rally, but there wasn't enough momentum to push the Dow Jones industrial average back into positive territory. The Dow closed down 5 points after dropping as much as 68 points earlier in the day. Broader indexes also fell modestly.
Trading volume on the New York Stock Exchange fell to its second-lowest level of the year as many traders avoided the market altogether.
The high unemployment rate in the U.S. remains one of the biggest worries for investors. The surprise jump in claims last week suggests that employers are still reluctant to create jobs, which could keep a damper on economic growth the coming months.
"The trend is going exactly in the wrong direction," said Phil Orlando, chief equity market strategist at Federated Investors. However, Orlando cautioned that layoffs of temporary census workers might have skewed results somewhat, and that's why the market didn't fall that much.
Traders will get a stronger reading on the jobs market today when the government releases its closely watched monthly tally of payrolls and the unemployment rate.
The Dow fell 5.45, or 0.1 percent, to 10,674.98. The Standard & Poor's 500 index fell 1.43, or 0.1 percent, to 1,125.81, while the Nasdaq composite index fell 10.51, or 0.5 percent, to 2,293.06.
About four stocks fell for every three that rose on the New York Stock Exchange, where volume came to 875.6 million shares. Consolidated volume came to 3.7 billion shares versus 4.1 billion the day before.
Stocks have alternated between gains and losses all week as economic reports vacillate between topping expectations and falling short of forecasts.
Bond prices climbed as investors opted for the safety of Treasurys. The yield on the 10-year Treasury note, which moves opposite to its price, fell to 2.91 percent from 2.96 percent late Wednesday. Its yield helps set interest rates on mortgages and other consumer loans.
Treasury yields are hovering near levels not seen since April 2009, when the stock market was just beginning a yearlong rally after touching 12-year lows.