NEW YORK - Stocks dipped Thursday as investors locked in their positions at the end of the year.
While U.S. markets fell slightly, stocks are set to end 2010 on an upbeat note: The S&P 500 index and the Dow Jones industrial average are both up 14 percent for the year, after dividends, thanks to record corporate profits. The Dow is back to levels last seen in August 2008, before the worst of the financial crisis, while the S&P might eke out its best December in 20 years.
Some investors are taking the last week of the month to sell and notch their profits. Others are selling stocks or funds that have lost money in order to reap the tax benefits.
The Dow Jones industrial average was off 15.67 points, or 0.14 percent, to 11,569.71. The S&P 500 edged down 1.9 points, or 0.15 percent, to 1,257.88. The technology-focused Nasdaq composite index fell 3.95, or 0.15 percent, to 2,662.98.
Losses came across the market. Energy and telecommunications companies were the only ones among the 10 industry groups that make up the S&P index to post gains.
Alcoa Inc. rose 0.5 percent to $15.21 to lead the 30 stocks that make up the Dow. American Express had the largest loss, falling 0.8 percent to $42.51.
Investors received positive economic news. The Labor Department said the number of Americans applying for unemployment benefits for the first time fell to its lowest point in nearly 21/2 years, a sign that the job market is slowly improving. Applications dropped by 34,000 to 388,000, the fewest since July 2008.
The Chicago Purchasing Managers Index for December showed that companies in the Midwest were faring better than analysts had anticipated. The index, which surveys business conditions in Illinois, Indiana, and Michigan, came in with a reading of 68.6, up from 62.5 in the previous month. Economists had been expecting the index to drop to 61.
Home sales also fared well. The National Association of Realtors said the number of people who signed contracts to buy homes rose in November, the fourth increase since contract signings hit a low in June. Its index of sales agreements for previously occupied homes increased 3.5 percent.
However, with mortgage rates creeping up, investors worried over its effect on home sales. The average rate on 30-year fixed mortgages rose this week to 4.86 percent, the highest level in seven months.