US treads water ahead of jobs data

US stocks ended a solid quarter with the barest of moves yesterday, as investors looked ahead to Friday’s US jobs report to provide a catalyst to push indexes to new highs for the year.

After gaining 5.4 per cent in the first quarter, the benchmark S&P 500 hovered near 1,330, a level the index has been unable to break despite several attempts in the past month. A strong payrolls number may tip it over and technical momentum could kick in, lifting stocks further.

“The market has stalled around this area before,” said Jim Paulsen, chief investment officer at Wells Capital Management in Minneapolis. “Unless we get a bad number tomorrow, this market is going to make a run at the year highs.”

Stocks were resilient through the first quarter, hanging tough despite Japan’s earthquake and nuclear crisis and a series of uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East.

Friday’s jobs report would confirm investor optimism that a strong US recovery can overcome the global trouble spots.

In March, the Dow industrials outperformed both the S&P 500 and Nasdaq, indicating preference for stronger companies as overseas concerns lingered.

Initial claims for unemployment benefits last week showed the trend of labour market improvement remains intact, but at a slow pace.

The data precedes Friday’s closely watched employment report from the Labour Department, which is expected to show the US economy added 190,000 jobs in March.

Daily volume was light again, continuing the week’s pattern. About 6.9 billion shares traded on the New York Stock

Exchange, NYSE Amex and Nasdaq, below last year’s estimated daily average of 8.47 billion.

The Dow Jones industrial average dropped 30.88 points, or 0.25 per cent, to 12,319.73. The Standard & Poor’s 500 dipped 2.43 points, or 0.18 per cent, to 1,325.83. The Nasdaq Composite edged up 4.28 points, or 0.15 per cent, to 2,781.07.

For the month, the Dow edged up 0.76 per cent, the S&P shed 0.1 per cent and Nasdaq dipped 0.04 per cent.

That trend also proved true for the entire first quarter, with the Dow rising 6.4 per cent, compared with the S&P’s gain of 5.4 per cent and the Nasdaq’s advance of 4.8 per cent.

Berkshire Hathaway’s class B shares fell 2.1 per cent to $83.63 a day after the resignation of David Sokol, the man widely seen as the leading successor to Warren Buffett to run Berkshire.