Those two stock-market indexes reached four-year highs last week after the Federal Reserve unveiled a new plan to support the economy. Clark Yingst, chief market analyst at the securities firm Joseph Gunnar, said economic reports continue to draw a picture of an economic recovery stuck in low gear. To Yingst, it's hard to find any reason for stocks to climb much higher.
"You do have to wonder what the next catalyst is going to be," he said.
The Labor Department reported that 382,000 people applied for unemployment benefits last week, more than economists had expected. When applications consistently top 375,000, it suggests hiring is too weak to lower the unemployment rate.
More evidence of sluggishness came from Norfolk Southern. The railroad said late Thursday that falling coal prices and a drop in shipments will likely drag down quarterly earnings. Norfolk Southern's stock sank $6.58 to $66.11.
The Dow Jones industrial average found a way to finish the day with a new 52-week high. The widely watched equity barometer gained 18.97 points to 13,596.93. Kraft Foods - which will be replaced by UnitedHealth Group in the 30-stock average as of Monday - led the Dow up with a 1.9 percent surge, ending up 76 cents at $41.60.
Stronger earnings pushed ConAgra Foods up 6.2 percent. The maker of Healthy Choice packaged meals and Slim Jim beef jerky said its profit more than doubled, helped by lower food costs and a strong gain from a hedge on commodity prices. ConAgra's stock rose $1.59 to $27.24.
The three major indexes have gained nearly 4 percent in September, historically the worst month for stocks. Since 1950, the S&P 500 has averaged a drop of 0.5 percent for the month. The Dow has lost an average of 0.8 percent.
Among other stocks making moves, Starbucks gained $1.08 to $51.19. The coffee giant said it will start selling a single-serve coffee machine starting at $199. The Verismo will compete with Green Mountain Coffee Roasters' Keurig machine and Nestle's Nespresso. Shares of Green Mountain fell 10 percent, or $2.97, to $27.84.
CarMax sank 6 percent after the chain of used-car dealers reported essentially flat quarterly net income, below analysts' expectations. Costs surged as CarMax opened more dealerships. Its stock lost $2.01 to $29.96.