US stocks eke out gains ahead of jobs report

NEW YORK (AFP) - Wall Street stocks eked out modest gains on Thursday (March 9) ahead of a closely-watched jobs report as US oil prices dipped below US$50 a barrel for the first time since December.

Equities were choppy as investors girded for the February employment report, expected by analysts to show a gain of 188,000 jobs, although some say it could surprise on the high side.

The key jobs report comes ahead of a Federal Reserve meeting next week that is widely expected to produce an interest rate hike.

"It is usually pretty quiet in the week leading to an employment report and this one in particular because there is a very high probability the Fed could raise rates next week," said Chris Low, chief economist at FTN Financial.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average ended at 20,858.19, essentially flat.

The broad-based S&P 500 edged up less than 0.1 per cent to 2,364.87, while the tech-rich Nasdaq Composite Index was essentially flat at 5,838.81.

Petroleum-linked equities were mixed, with ConocoPhillips gaining 1.2 per cent and Transocean dropping 3.2 per cent as US oil prices tumbled on worries about increased American shale output.

Large banks, including Bank of America and JPMorgan Chase, both finished up 0.4 per cent, below their session highs, after a White House spokesman said President Donald Trump supports reviving a Depression-era law barring retail banks from engaging in investment banking. Trump has otherwise supported loosening regulations on large banks.

American Airlines fell 3.5 per cent after it cut its estimate for first quarter growth in revenue per seat mile to a range of 1.5 per cent to 3.5 per cent, a point lower than an earlier projection.

Caterpillar fell 2 per cent, tumbling again after a New York Times story on Wednesday reported on a government-commissioned review that concluded the company deliberately committed tax fraud.