By Stan Choe and Alex Veiga
Updated 4:44 pm ET
Stocks perked higher on Wall Street Thursday after a report showed the pace of layoffs across the country is slowing, though it remains incredibly high.
The S&P 500 rose 21.39, or 0.6 percent, to 3,349.16, as investors also waited for Congress and the White House to reach a hoped-for deal on more aid for the economy. It was the fifth straight gain for the index, which now hangs just 1.1 percent below its record set in February. Early in the spring, when panic about the pandemic was at its height, the S&P 500 had been down nearly 34 percent.
The Dow Jones Industrial Average climbed 185.46, or 0.7 percent, to 27,386.98 after it and other indexes waffled between smaller gains and losses for much of the day. The Nasdaq composite rose 109.67, or 1 percent, to 11,108.07 and set another record.
The day's headline economic report showed that nearly 1.2 million workers applied for unemployment benefits last week. It would have been an astounding number before the coronavirus pandemic leveled the economy. But it's a slight slowdown from the prior week's tally, and it was also not as bad as economists were expecting.
"The market is searching for footholds of good news," said Nela Richardson, investment strategist at Edward Jones. "The fact that nearly 1.2 million jobless claims in a single week is considered good news shows you how far we've deteriorated in the labor market."
It was also the first drop in jobless claims following two weeks of increases, and economists called it an encouraging step. But the threat of more business closures due to the continuing pandemic means the path remains treacherous.
Investors have been pushing stocks higher despite such worries, in part on expectations that Washington will work through partisan disagreements and strike a deal on more assistance for out-of-work Americans, along with other measures.
Investors say it's crucial that the aid comes, and quickly, after $600 weekly in jobless benefits from the U.S. government recently expired. The economy has shown signs of improvement since the spring, but it's still hobbling, and worries are high that it may backtrack amid a resurgence in coronavirus counts.
Democrats and Republicans traded criticism of each other on Thursday, following a Wednesday session that produced no progress. Negotiations are continuing, and both sides have set a goal of reaching a deal by week's end, even if that increasingly appears to be out of reach.
Richardson said the possibility of President Donald Trump using his executive authority to extend coronavirus relief if Congress fails to reach a deal may have helped lift the market Thursday.
Despite the market's gains, slightly more stocks fell in the S&P 500 than rose, with the health care sector the heaviest weight on the index. Becton Dickinson sank 8.4 percent after it gave a forecast for earnings this fiscal year that fell short of analysts' expectations.
Western Digital, which makes hard disks and other storage for electronics, slumped 16.1 percent for the largest loss in the S&P 500 after it gave a profit forecast for the current quarter that wasn't as strong as Wall Street's.
More gains for Apple helped to lift the market. The iPhone maker reported blowout profits for the spring a week ago, and its stock has climbed every day since then. The gains have been so strong that it may become the country's first company to be worth $2 trillion. After rising 3.5 percent Thursday, it's at roughly $1.93 trillion.
Sealed Air, the company behind Bubble Wrap and Cryovac packaging, rose 8.8 percent for one of the biggest gains in the S&P 500 after it reported stronger earnings for the latest quarter than analysts forecast. It also gave a better-than-expected estimate for earnings this year.
The yield on the 10-year Treasury dipped to 0.53 percent from 0.54 percent late Wednesday. It pared a steeper drop from the morning, but it remains very low amid worries about the economy and as the Federal Reserve has pinned short-term rates at nearly zero.
Some analysts have been concerned about the wide disconnect between the bond market, which is still showing so much caution, and the stock market, which has rallied back toward record heights. Even though the stock market is not the economy — it's increasingly dominated by a handful of Big Tech companies that can profit even during a pandemic, and profit is what drives stock prices in the long run — critics say the degree of the gap between them is concerning.
Gold also continued its record run as investors looked for safety. Gold for delivery in December rose $20.10 to settle at $2,069.40 per ounce.
Benchmark U.S. crude oil slipped 24 cents to settle at $41.95 per barrel. Brent crude, the international standard, fell 8 cents to $45.09 a barrel.
In European stock markets, Germany's DAX lost 0.5 percent, and France's CAC 40 fell 1 percent. The FTSE 100 in London dropped 1.3 percent.
Asian markets were mixed. Japan's Nikkei 225 slipped 0.4 percent, but South Korea's Kospi rose 1.3 percent. The Hang Seng in Hong Kong lost 0.7 percent, but stocks in Shanghai added 0.3 percent.
AP Business Writers Elaine Kurtenbach and Yuri Kageyama contributed.