By Rodrigo Campos
NEW YORK (Reuters) - U.S. stocks advanced slightly in choppy trading on Thursday after three days of gains, as underwhelming results from tech bellwethers Google and IBM were offset by upbeat quarterly numbers, including those from Morgan Stanley and General Electric.
The latest data showed the U.S. economy's health was improving. The number of Americans filing new claims for unemployment benefits rose less than expected in the latest week and came near pre-recession levels. Factory activity in the U.S. mid-Atlantic region expanded in April at a faster clip than anticipated, according to a survey from the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia.
The combined reported and expected earnings-per-share growth estimate for S&P 500 components rose to 1.7 percent from Wednesday's 0.6 percent, Thomson Reuters data showed, indicating most companies that reported results in the past 24 hours exceeded expectations.
The technology sector capped the S&P 500's gain, with Google shares down 3.2 percent at $545.81 and IBM off 3.2 percent at $190.28 after both reported earnings late Wednesday that failed to impress Wall Street. Their results raised questions about those of other tech-sector companies.
"The market is digesting the sharp move we’ve seen this week and doing its best to ignore the results from IBM and Google, which didn’t look great," said Steve Sosnick, equity risk manager at Timber Hill/Interactive Brokers Group in Greenwich, Connecticut.
"I’m mostly focused on bank earnings, which have been OK for the most part, and there haven’t been many outliers, which is a good thing."
He said moves should be taken with a grain of salt as many trading desks are short-handed ahead of the long weekend. U.S. markets will be closed for Good Friday.
Shares of Morgan Stanley , rose 3.6 percent to $30.97 after the financial services company reported a rise in first-quarter earnings, while Goldman Sachs edged up 0.4 percent to $157.91 after the bank reported an 11 percent drop in profits but beat expectations.
UnitedHealth Group shares fell 3.2 percent to $75.70 after the largest U.S. health insurer said it has spent more than $100 million to cover a pricey new hepatitis C drug from Gilead Sciences , a higher cost than it expected by "multiples." Shares in the health insurance sector fell on the news, with WellPoint down 3.4 percent at $92.45. Questions from U.S. lawmakers on the cost of that drug prompted a sharp selloff in Gilead in mid-March that lasted for nearly a month.
The Dow Jones industrial average rose 6.84 points or 0.04 percent, to 16,431.69. The S&P 500 <.SPX> gained 4.05 points or 0.22 percent, to 1,866.36. The Nasdaq Composite added 15.908 points or 0.39 percent, to 4,102.133.
If the indexes hold their gains, the Dow and the S&P 500 will post their largest weekly advance this year.
General Electric posted a 12 percent rise in overall industrial profits and its shares gained 2.1 percent to $26.67.
Shares of China's Weibo Corp opened slightly below the $17 pricing of its initial public offering, which was at the lower end of expectations on concerns about the microblogging service's slowing user growth. The stock, however, turned sharply higher and shot up 18.7 percent to $20.18 in afternoon trading.
Western Union shares fell 3.8 percent to $15.44 after Wal-Mart Stores said it was launching a domestic money transfer service in partnership with Euronet Worldwide subsidiary Ria Money Transfer.
Shares of MoneyGram International , which currently provides money transfer services for Wal-Mart, plunged 15.3 percent to $15.23. Euronet shares rose 5.5 percent to $43.04. Wal-Mart's stock gained 0.6 percent to $77.71.
Baker Hughes shares hit their highest since August 2011 after the world's third-largest oilfield services company posted better-than-expected results as revenue in its core North American business rose nearly 7 percent. The stock climbed 4.2 percent to $69.08 after earlier rising as high as $69.78.
(Additional reporting by Ryan Vlastelica; Editing by Bernadette Baum, Meredith Mazzilli and Jan Paschal)