* Dow hits third straight intraday record high
* Jobless claims unexpectedly fell last week
* Gap shares surge after Feb sales, Zumiez falls
* Dow up 0.2 pct, S&P 500 up 0.2 pct, Nasdaq up 0.2 pct
By Ryan Vlastelica
NEW YORK, March 7 (Reuters) - U.S. stocks rose modestly on
Thursday, with the Dow hitting its third straight intraday
record as jobless claims data pointed to a pick-up in the labor
market's recovery a day before the closely watched payrolls
The Dow and the S&P 500 were both up for their fifth
straight days as investors looked for opportunities to buy into
the recent rally. However, caution ahead of the jobs report
curbed gains and kept the S&P more than 1 percent below its
"Today's move is pretty tranquil. No one is going to take
big positions ahead of tomorrow's number, but the market is
definitely in an uptrend," said Paul Zemsky, the New York-based
head of asset allocation at ING Investment Management.
Growth-oriented sectors led the day's gains. The S&P
financial index added 0.5 percent and hit an intraday
high. Shares of Dow component Bank of America rose 2.3
percent to $12.19.
A strengthening economy and loose monetary policy by central
banks around the world have pushed U.S. stocks higher this year.
Investors have kept buying into the market since Tuesday's
rally, but gains have been more subdued.
Worries remain as Washington debates the path of fiscal
policy, the euro zone is not out of its crisis, and U.S.
economic growth remains anemic.
However, the latest economic data was encouraging, as the
number of Americans filing claims for unemployment benefits
unexpectedly fell last week to a seasonally adjusted 340,000. It
was the second straight week of declines.
Investors will stay focused on the labor market ahead of
Friday's non-farm payrolls report, which is expected to show the
U.S. economy added 160,000 jobs in February. While it has been a
soft spot in the economic recovery, the labor market is seen as
"If payrolls disappoint, we'll have a pullback, but that
won't be enough to derail the rally," said Zemsky, who helps
oversee $170 billion. "If the report is strong, markets still
have room to grow."
The Dow Jones industrial average was up 35.02 points,
or 0.24 percent, at 14,331.26. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index
was up 2.72 points, or 0.18 percent, at 1,544.18. The
Nasdaq Composite Index was up 7.45 points, or 0.23
percent, at 3,229.82.
The Dow is up 9.3 percent so far this year, while the S&P
500 is up 8.2 percent.
The Russell 2000 Index, which measures the
performance of 2,000 U.S. small-cap companies, hit an intraday
record high in Thursday's session. The Russell 1000 and
the Russell 3000 also climbed to record intraday highs in
In a separate report Thursday, the Commerce Department said
the U.S. international trade deficit widened more than expected
in January as crude oil imports rose and fuel oil exports fell.
In contrast, the department cut its estimate of the December
Shares of network equipment maker Ciena jumped 17
percent to $17.51 after the company reported a smaller quarterly
Retail stocks were among the most active following February
same-store sales. Gap Inc jumped 4.3 percent to $35.93
as its results were stronger than expected, while Zumiez
slid 5 percent to $21.95 on a weak report.
Teen apparel retailer Hot Topic Inc said it will be
bought by private equity firm Sycamore Partners for about $600
million. Shares surged 29 percent to $13.89.
On the down side, shares of PetSmart fell 6.8
percent to $62.05 after the company's full-year profit forecast
missed analysts' estimates. At least two brokerages cut their
price targets on the retailer's stock.