By Rodrigo Campos
NEW YORK (Reuters) - U.S. stocks were little changed in choppy trading on Thursday following three days of gains, as underwhelming results from tech giants Google and IBM were offset by upbeat quarterly numbers including those from Morgan Stanley and General Electric.
Economic data was supportive of equities, with the number of Americans filing new claims for unemployment benefits up less than expected last week and near pre-recession levels. Factory activity in the U.S. mid-Atlantic region expanded in April at a faster clip than anticipated.
Blended earnings per share growth on S&P 500 components rose to 1.7 percent from Wednesday's 0.6 percent, Thomson Reuters data showed, indicating most companies that reported in the past 24 hours exceeded expectations.
The technology sector capped gains on the S&P, with Google shares down 3.4 percent at $544.36 and IBM off 3.9 percent at $188.76 after both reported underwhelming earnings late Wednesday. 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 desks are short-handed ahead of the long weekend. U.S. markets will be closed for Good Friday.
Shares of Morgan Stanley , rose 3.5 percent to $30.94 after it reported a rise in first-quarter earnings, while Goldman Sachs edged up 0.7 percent to $158.36 after the bank reported an 11 percent drop in profits but beat expectations.
The Dow Jones industrial average fell 12.03 points or 0.07 percent, to 16,412.82, the S&P 500 gained 0.57 points or 0.03 percent, to 1,862.88 and the Nasdaq Composite added 6.304 points or 0.15 percent, to 4,092.529.
If indexes hold their gains, the Dow and S&P will post their largest weekly gains this year.
Wall Street rallied 1 percent on Wednesday after Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen said persistently low inflation poses a more immediate threat to the U.S. economy than rising prices, stressing that the U.S. central bank would be delivering policy stimulus for some time to come.
General Electric posted a 12 percent rise in overall industrial profits and its shares gained 1.7 percent to $26.57.
China's Weibo Corp priced it initial public offering at the lower end of expectations on concerns about the microblogging service's slowing user growth and the country's highly censored media environment. The stock is scheduled to begin trading shortly on the Nasdaq.
Western Union shares fell 5 percent to $15.24 after Wal-Mart 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, were down 15.1 percent at $15.27. Euronet rose 3 percent to $42.03.
SanDisk increased its outlook for gross margins in 2014 as fast-growing sales of its high-end solid-state drives helped offset volatile prices for memory chips, sending its shares up 9.8 percent to $83.26.
Chipotle Mexican Grill reported an 8 percent rise in quarterly profit as sales surged at established restaurants, driving its shares up 4.9 percent to $579.52.
(Additional reporting by Ryan Vlastelica; Editing by Bernadette Baum and Meredith Mazzilli)