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US markets closed mostly lower; Dow ekes minor gain

The US markets closed mostly lower on Thursday, while the Dow erased a triple-digit intraday drop to end higher, in choppy action as investors awaited a key reading of monthly employment on Friday. Unsteady trade was underpinned by quarterly results that failed to impress the street, uncertainty over the Federal Reserve's policy plan - despite its Wednesday update - and worries over a full-blown US-China trade war. The Atlanta Federal Reserve's GDPNow forecast model showed that the US economy is expanding at a 4.0 percent annualized rate in the second quarter in the wake of the latest data on domestic vehicle sales, trade balance and factory orders. The latest estimate on gross domestic product growth was a tad lower than the 4.0 percent pace calculated on Tuesday.

On the economy front, the trade deficit sank 15% in March to the lowest level in six months, but the decline is likely just temporary. The US is on track to run another large trade gap in 2018 that exceeds the deficit in the prior year. The deficit slid to $49 billion in March from $57.7 billion in February. Exports advanced 2% to $208.5 billion and set a new record. The US shipped more petroleum, passenger planes and even soybeans and corn ahead of pending tariffs by China in retaliation for US trade sanctions. Exports of autos fell, however. US imports dropped 1.8% to $257.5 billion. The US imported far few consumer goods such as TVs, computers, toys and appliances. Imports of wine and beer also fell.

Separately, one week after falling to the lowest level since 1969, initial US jobless claims rebounded but only slightly. Claims rose by 2,000 to 211,000 in the seven days ended April 28 - well below the average of 225,000 forecast. The more stable monthly average of claims decreased by 7,750 and stood at 221,500. That is the lowest level since March 1973. The number of people already collecting unemployment benefits, known as continuing claims, fell by 77,000 to 1.76 million.

Meanwhile, the Institute for Supply Management's nonmanufacturing index fell more than expected in April, dropping to 56.8, while factory orders rose 1.6% in the month. However, the Markit services purchasing managers index for April came in at 54.6, compared with 54 in March.

The Nasdaq dropped 12.746 points or 0.18 percent to 7,088.15, the S&P 500 was down by 5.94 points or 0.23 percent to 2,629.73, while the Dow Jones Industrial Average added 5.17 points or 0.02 percent to 23,930.15. 

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