NEW YORK (AP) -- U.S. stocks inched higher Thursday as smaller retailers and banks traded higher and energy companies rose with fuel prices. Once again, the market was unable to hang on to more substantial gains from earlier in the day.
Strong reports from companies including L Brands, the parent of Victoria's Secret, and Bed Bath & Beyond helped retailers. Energy companies rose with the prices of oil and natural gas, and banks recovered some of the sharp losses they took a day ago.
The Dow Jones industrial average rose as much as 98 points early in the afternoon. However high-dividend stocks like phone companies and utilities skidded and technology companies also fell.
Terry Sandven, chief equity strategist for U.S. Bank Wealth Management, said investors are feeling uncertain, and that may hold true for at least a few weeks. After a weak auto sales report on Monday, he said investors are wondering how fast the economy is growing and what that will mean for company earnings.
"We expect volatility to be higher than what we experienced in the first quarter," he said.
It was the second day in a row that stocks slumped during afternoon trading, although the slip Thursday was far less dramatic than the one the day before. That slide started after the Federal Reserve said it may stop buying new bonds later this year and said its policymakers were grappling with whether it would be safe to let inflation rise faster.
The Standard & Poor's 500 index added 4.54 points, or 0.2 percent, to 2,357.49. The Dow Jones industrial average rose 14.80 points, or 0.1 percent, to 20,662.95.
The Nasdaq composite gained 14.47 points, or 0.2 percent, to 5,878.95. The Russell 2000 index of small-company stocks performed far better. It climbed 12.28 points, or 0.9 percent, to 1,364.43.
About three-fourths of the stocks on the New York Stock Exchange rose Thursday, but stocks are mostly down this week. The Russell 2000 has fallen 1.6 percent.
Investors will get an updated picture of the economy in the coming weeks, including the government's March report on employment Friday. Next week the Commerce Department will give a report on retailer sales and companies including JPMorgan Chase, Delta Air Lines and Netflix will report their earnings.
L Brands jumped $4.75, or 11 percent, to $47.85 after it reported strong March sales. Bed Bath & Beyond surpassed analysts' earnings estimates and climbed $1.28, or 3.4 percent, to $39.08. Department stores and mall-based retailers like Kohl's, Nordstrom and Gap traded higher. Discount retailers Fred's and Five Below made hefty gains after Fred's announced its own quarterly results.
Retail stocks have been hit hard for months as shoppers spend more money online and less at stores, especially ones based in malls.
Bond prices recovered from an early decline. The yield on the 10-year Treasury note stayed at 2.34 percent. Companies that pay big dividends, like phone companies and utilities, traded lower. Investors often sell those stocks when bond yields rise, as they did earlier in the day.
U.S. crude oil added 55 cents, or 1.1 percent, to $51.70 a barrel in New York while Brent crude, the international standard, rose 53 cents, or 1 percent, to $54.89 a barrel in London.
Wine, liquor and beer maker Constellation Brands jumped after it reported a larger profit and better sales than analysts expected. The company said its beer business, which includes Corona and Modelo, had a strong quarter, and it raised its profit forecast for the year. Its stock gained $10.37, or 6.4 percent, to $171.77.
Sunoco climbed after it agreed to sell most of its convenience stores to 7-Eleven. Sunoco will get $3.3 billion and 7-Eleven will acquire 1,100 stores, mostly in the East Coast and Texas. Sunoco also struck a fuel supply deal with a 7-Eleven subsidiary and it plans to sell 200 more convenience stores in a separate deal. Shares of Sunoco jumped $4.83, or 20.2 percent, to $28.69.
Consumer products giant Unilever said it will shake up its business after it rejected a $143 billion takeover effort from Kraft Heinz. It plans to sell its spreads business, which makes I Can't Believe It's Not Butter and Country Crock, combine its food and refreshment divisions, and return more than $5 billion to investors by buying back stock and raising its dividend. Its shares gained 44 cents to $49.55.
In other energy trading, wholesale gasoline added 1 cent to $1.73 a gallon. Heating oil rose 1 cent to $1.61 per gallon. Natural gas jumped 7 cents, or 2 percent, to $3.33 per 1,000 cubic feet.
Gold rose $4.80 to $1,253.30 an ounce. Silver added 6 cents to $18.25 an ounce. Copper slipped 2 cents to $2.66 a pound.
The dollar fell to 110.78 yen from 110.86 yen. The euro fell to $1.0646 from $1.0667.
France's CAC 40 jumped 0.6 percent and the FTSE 100 index in Britain fell 0.4 percent. Germany's DAX rose 0.1 percent. In Japan the benchmark Nikkei 225 lost 1.4 percent, and the Kospi of South Korea lost 0.4 percent. Hong Kong's Hang Seng fell 0.6 percent.