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Stocks end near flat as investors assess earnings, data

FILE PHOTO: Traders work on the trading floor at the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) in New York City

By Chuck Mikolajczak

NEW YORK (Reuters) -U.S. stocks closed near the unchanged mark on Thursday, as investors sifted through the latest corporate earnings, while economic data and comments from Federal Reserve officials suggested the central bank was unlikely to cut interest rates in the near future.

Economic data showed that the labor market remained resilient, as weekly initial unemployment claims were unchanged from the prior week at 212,000 while a gauge of manufacturing in the mid-Atlantic region rose to a two-year high.

The solid labor market, recent reading showing sticky inflation, and comments from Fed officials, including Chair Jerome Powell, have led markets to back off expectations the central bank would cut interest rates by at least 25 basis points (bps) at its June meeting.

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"I wouldn't be surprised if we go through a fall or spring where it's an air pocket for a while," said Richard Alt, Principal and CEO at Carnegie Investment Counsel in Cleveland, Ohio, referring to a drop in stock prices.

"But the numbers are going to come in with unemployment low and 70% of this economy consumer spending, if unemployment continues to be low consumers will continue to spend, they'll continue to travel, they'll continue to demand services and that's going to drive earnings and prices up towards the end of the year."

According to preliminary data, the S&P 500 lost 12.02 points, or 0.24%, to end at 5,010.19 points, while the Nasdaq Composite lost 82.35 points, or 0.52%, to 15,601.02. The Dow Jones Industrial Average rose 23.87 points, or 0.06%, to 37,777.18.

The S&P 500 saw its fifth straight session of declines, as equities have struggled recently following a five-month rally that started in November, in part due to expectations the Fed was likely to cut interest rates in the first half of the year.

The five-session run of declines marks the longest for the benchmark S&P index since October.

After the closing bell, Netflix fell about 4% in extended trade after posting its quarterly results.

Comments on Thursday from Fed officials reiterated the lack of urgency to lower rates, as New York Federal Reserve President John Williams cited the robust economy while Atlanta Federal Reserve President Raphael Bostic said he is "comfortable being patient" as inflation is returning to the Fed's 2% target more slowly than expected.

Market expectations for a rate cut of at least 25 bps in June have shrunk to 15.2%, according to CME's FedWatch Tool, with July standing at 41.5%. down from 48.4% a week ago.

On the plus side, stock Meta Platforms rose 1.54% as the biggest boost to the S&P 500 after Bernstein raised its price target to $590 from $535.

Earnings season continued to pick up steam with Genuine Parts surging 11.22% as the top percentage gainer on the S&P, after the automotive parts distributor raised its 2024 profit forecast.

In contrast, Las Vegas Sands dropped 8.66% as the worst S&P performer despite beating quarterly expectations, as multiple brokerages cut their price target on the stock, citing weakness in its Macau operations.

Equifax also tumbled, down 8.49% after the credit ratings firm forecast its second-quarter revenue below estimates.

On the NYSE declining issues outnumbered advancing ones by a 1.2-to-1 ratio and by a 1.18-to-1 ratio on the Nasdaq.

The NYSE saw 34 new highs and 95 new lows while the Nasdaq had 24 new highs and 238 new lows.

Volume on U.S. exchanges was 10.54 billion shares, compared with the 10.99 billion average for the full session over the last 20 trading days.

(Reporting by Chuck Mikolajczak; Editing by Aurora Ellis)