NEW YORK — The stock market struggled for direction Thursday morning as investors were torn between encouraging news about a decline in claims for unemployment benefits and discouraging signs that a budget impasse in Washington is far from being solved.
Major indexes dipped between small gains and losses in early trading.
Around 10 a.m. EST, the Dow Jones industrial average was down seven points at 13,104. The Standard & Poor's 500 was down a point at 1,418. The Nasdaq composite index was down less than a point at 2,987.
Earlier in the morning, the government reported that the number of people seeking unemployment benefits over the past month fell to its lowest level since March 2008.
The figures were affected by the Christmas holiday. A Labor Department spokesman said many state unemployment offices were unable to compile complete data because they were closed Monday and Tuesday.
Unemployment remains high. At 7.7 percent, it's lower than it's been in nearly four years. But to many, that still feels more like a recession than a recovery, which the U.S. has technically been in for more than three years.
Stocks are also still digesting this week's news that the holiday shopping season hasn't been as strong as retailers hoped, another sign that the economy is still struggling.
Overall it was a quiet morning on the market, with many traders still on vacation and few major company announcements scheduled. It was the first day of post-Christmas trading for European markets, and most major indexes there rose.
In Washington, the "fiscal cliff" neared with no resolution to a budget standoff. Higher taxes and government spending cuts kick in next week if Republicans and Democrats can't reach a budget compromise by Dec. 31. The uncertainty has made investors pull money out of stocks.
The "fiscal cliff" talks gained an extra layer of urgency late Wednesday with the news that the government is going to hit its $16.4 trillion borrowing limit — its so-called debt ceiling — on Monday.
Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner told Congress that he would use accounting measures to try to save approximately $200 billion. But those are stopgap measures, which would keep the government from going over its borrowing limit for probably only a couple of months.
Chipmaker Marvell Technology Group dropped 4 percent after the company lost a patent case brought by Carnegie Mellon University. Marvell said it would fight the $1.2 billion ruling.
In Japan, the benchmark Nikkei 225 index rose to its highest close since March 2011. The country is preparing for the incoming, pro-business prime minister, Shinzo Abe. He has called for more public works spending to reinvigorate the economy, and measures to drag the country out of deflation, or steadily declining prices.