Stocks rose modestly on Thursday, with the Dow hitting its third straight intraday record as jobless claims data pointed to a pick-up in the labor market's recovery a day before the closely watched payrolls report.
The Dow and the S&P 500 were both up for their fifth straight days as investors looked for opportunities to buy into the recent rally. However, caution ahead of the jobs report curbed gains and kept the S&P more than 1 percent below its record close.
"Today's move is pretty tranquil. No one is going to take big positions ahead of tomorrow's number, but the market is definitely in an uptrend," said Paul Zemsky, the New York-based head of asset allocation at ING Investment Management.
Growth-oriented sectors led the day's gains. The S&P financial index <.SPSY> added 0.5 percent and hit an intraday high. Shares of Dow component Bank of America rose 2.3 percent to $12.19.
A strengthening economy and loose monetary policy by central banks around the world have pushed U.S. stocks higher this year. Investors have kept buying into the market since Tuesday's rally, but gains have been more subdued.
Worries remain as Washington debates the path of fiscal policy, the euro zone is not out of its crisis, and U.S. economic growth remains anemic.
However, the latest economic data was encouraging, as the number of Americans filing claims for unemployment benefits unexpectedly fell last week to a seasonally adjusted 340,000. It was the second straight week of declines.
Investors will stay focused on the labor market ahead of Friday's non-farm payrolls report, which is expected to show the U.S. economy added 160,000 jobs in February. While it has been a soft spot in the economic recovery, the labor market is seen as healing slowly.
"If payrolls disappoint, we'll have a pullback, but that won't be enough to derail the rally," said Zemsky, who helps oversee $170 billion. "If the report is strong, markets still have room to grow."
The Dow Jones industrial average <.DJI> was up 35.02 points, or 0.24 percent, at 14,331.26. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index <.SPX> was up 2.72 points, or 0.18 percent, at 1,544.18. The Nasdaq Composite Index <.IXIC> was up 7.45 points, or 0.23 percent, at 3,229.82.
The Dow is up 9.3 percent so far this year, while the S&P 500 is up 8.2 percent.
The Russell 2000 Index <.TOY>, which measures the performance of 2,000 U.S. small-cap companies, hit an intraday record high in Thursday's session. The Russell 1000 <.RUI> and the Russell 3000 <.RUA> also climbed to record intraday highs in Thursday's session.
In a separate report Thursday, the Commerce Department said the U.S. international trade deficit widened more than expected in January as crude oil imports rose and fuel oil exports fell. In contrast, the department cut its estimate of the December trade gap.
Shares of network equipment maker Ciena jumped 17 percent to $17.51 after the company reported a smaller quarterly loss.
Retail stocks were among the most active following February same-store sales. Gap Inc jumped 4.3 percent to $35.93 as its results were stronger than expected, while Zumiez slid 5 percent to $21.95 on a weak report.
Teen apparel retailer Hot Topic Inc said it will be bought by private equity firm Sycamore Partners for about $600 million. Shares surged 29 percent to $13.89.
On the down side, shares of PetSmart fell 6.8 percent to $62.05 after the company's full-year profit forecast missed analysts' estimates. At least two brokerages cut their price targets on the retailer's stock.
(Additional reporting by Leah Schnurr in New York; Editing by Nick Zieminski and Jan Paschal)