NEW YORK - The stock market finished mostly lower Thursday as investors assessed the latest batch of corporate earnings, and sold utility and energy stocks.
The Dow Jones industrial average edged up 32.43 points, or 0.2 percent, to close at 16,550.97. The Standard & Poor's 500 index fell 2.58 points, or 0.14 percent, to 1,875.63. The Nasdaq composite lost 16.18 points, or 0.4 percent, to close at 4,051.50.
Companies that pay steady dividends and have a long record of profitability, such as utilities, have surged this year, benefiting from a shift in sentiment as investors sold previously high-flying Internet and small-company stocks. A sell-off in those stocks could be a troubling sign for the overall market.
"The market is still pretty sloppy," said Quincy Krosby, a market strategist at Prudential Financial. "The fear in the market is that the selling spreads to the defensive stocks, the safe havens, and that could bring down the whole market."
Utility companies in the S&P 500 fell 1.2 percent, paring their gains this year to 12.5 percent. Energy stocks dropped 1.3 percent.
Stocks started the day higher as investors looked over earnings reports and some encouraging news on hiring. The U.S. government reported that the number of Americans seeking unemployment benefits fell 26,000 last week to 319,000, the latest sign that the job market is slowly improving. The drop follows two weeks of increases that reflected mostly temporary layoffs around the Easter holiday.
Shares of electric-car maker Tesla fell after the company reported a $49.8 million first-quarter loss late Wednesday and said it would need to invest more in its business. Tesla now sells only one car, the Model S, which starts at $70,000, but is working on two other vehicles, an electric crossover SUV called the Model X and a lower-cost model. The stock fell $22.76, or 11.3 percent, to $178.59.
Keurig Green Mountain, known for its single-serve coffee system, was among big gainers Thursday, climbing $11.98, or 13 percent, to $104.19. Wednesday, the company reported its net income climbed 22 percent in its fiscal second quarter.
Twenty-First Century Fox's stock rose $2.10, or 6.5 percent, to $34.22, after it reported earnings that surpassed analysts' expectations. Fox's TV unit got a boost from higher advertising revenue during the NFL playoffs and the Super Bowl.
Almost 90 percent of companies in the S&P 500 have reported first-quarter earnings. Overall, earnings are expected to grow by 3.3 percent, according to data from S&P Capital IQ, compared with growth of almost 8 percent in the fourth quarter 2013 and 5.2 percent in the same period a year ago.
Revenue also grew in the first quarter, rising 3.3 percent vs. 1.6 percent growth in the fourth quarter of 2013, a sign companies are experiencing stronger demand. But some investors believe companies still rely too much on cost-cutting.
"Those kind of cost-reduction strategies only go so far before you do need to have more top-line growth, and it remains to be seen whether companies can continue to grow in what remains, by many measure, a slow-growing economy," said Tom Karsten, chief investment officer at Karsten Advisors.