Wall Street drifts after two-day run, Dow record in sight

NEW YORK (Reuters) - U.S. stocks edged higher on Thursday with investors hard-pressed to lift indexes to multi-year highs despite strong economic data.

The U.S. economy ticked up in the fourth quarter, reversing an earlier estimate showing contraction, and a drop in new claims for unemployment benefits last week added to a string of data that suggests the economy improved early this year.

Still, the positive revision to GDP data was expected and the claims continue a trend that is baked into prices. The market lacks catalysts as it digests its recent move higher, according to Kevin Caron, market strategist at Stifel, Nicolaus & Co in Florham Park, New Jersey, where he helps oversee $120 billion in assets under management.

"That's why I think you're seeing a fairly listless trading environment today," Caron said.

The Dow was within striking distance of a record high after a more than 7 percent year-to-date run. The Dow transports index <.djt>, seen as a bet on future growth, is up almost 13 percent this year and hit a record intraday high Thursday before turning slightly negative.

The Dow Jones industrial average <.dji> rose 14.79 points or 0.11 percent, to 14,090.16, the S&P 500 <.spx> gained 3.12 points or 0.21 percent, to 1,519.11 and the Nasdaq Composite <.ixic> added 9.13 points or 0.29 percent, to 3,171.39.

The Dow's intraday record, set October 11, 2007, stands at 14,198.10.

The S&P 500 has gained more than 2 percent in the past three sessions.

Equity markets suffered steep losses earlier in the week on concerns over the impact of an Italian election on the European economy, but bounced back on strong data and recent comments by Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke that showed continued support for the Fed's economic stimulus policy.

J.C. Penney Co Inc slumped 17.9 percent to $17.38 after the department store reported a steep drop in sales on Wednesday. Groupon Inc also slumped on weak revenue, with the stock off 20 percent at $4.76.

Cablevision shares tumbled nearly 10 percent after the cable provider took a $100 million hit on costs related to Superstorm Sandy and posted deeper video customer losses than expected.

Mylan Inc shares were on track to close at their highest ever after the generic drugmaker posted a 25 percent rise in fourth-quarter profit and said it will buy a unit of India's Strides Arcolab Ltd. Shares were last up 3.8 percent at $29.66.

Investors were keeping an eye on the debate in Washington over U.S. government budget cuts that will take effect starting Friday if lawmakers fail to reach agreement on spending and taxes. President Barack Obama and Republican congressional leaders arranged last-ditch talks to prevent the cuts, but expectations were low that any deal would emerge.

With 93 percent of the S&P 500 companies having reported results so far, 69.5 percent have beaten profit expectations, compared with a 62 percent average since 1994 and 65 percent over the past four quarters, according to Thomson Reuters data.

Fourth-quarter earnings for S&P 500 companies are estimated to have risen 6.2 percent, according to the data, above a 1.9 percent forecast at the start of the earnings season.

(Reporting by Rodrigo Campos, additional reporting by Ryan Vlastelica; Editing by Nick Zieminski)

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