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US stocks drift after an early slide
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U.S. stocks drifted between small gains and losses in late afternoon trading Thursday, struggling to remain in positive territory after a steep slide early in the day.

The latest swings in the market reflect a surge in volatility as investors worry that global growth will slow and that Europe could slip into another recession. That could affect the U.S. economy and hurt corporate profits.

The Dow Jones industrial average sank as much as 206 points in the first hour of trading, turned higher an hour later, then wavered in a small range the rest of the day. As of 3:31 p.m. Eastern time it was down 12 points, or 0.08 percent, at 16,128.

The Standard & Poor's 500 index was up two points, or 0.1 percent, at 1,864. The Nasdaq composite gained seven points, or 0.2 percent, to 4,223.

On Wednesday the Dow plunged as much as 460 points, then recovered much of that loss to close down 173.

The S&P 500 is up 1.1 percent for the year, while the Nasdaq is up 1.3 percent. Both had been down for 2014 a day earlier. The Dow remains down 2.5 percent for the year.

Investors were combing through the latest batch of corporate earnings and a dash of new economic data for clues about the prospects for global economic growth. A key highlight: U.S. unemployment aid applications fell last week to the lowest level in 14 years, another sign that the job market is strengthening.

"We had some positive economic data that reminded everybody that the economy is doing quite well," said Randy Frederick, a managing director of trading and derivatives with the Schwab Center for Financial Research.

Netflix plunged 20 percent after the company's subscriber growth fell short of its own forecasts following a rate increase. The stock slid $88.31 to $360.22.

EBay shares also fell. The company reported quarterly results late Wednesday that included revenue that fell short of Wall Street's expectations. Its stock slid $2.66, or 5.3 percent, to $47.58.

Investors cheered earnings from Delta Air Lines, which reported results early Thursday that beat analysts' forecasts. The stock, which has been pummeled this week amid worries about the impact that worries about the Ebola virus might have on bookings, rose 98 cents, or 3 percent, to $33.36.

Philip Morris International gained after reporting quarterly results that exceeded analysts' forecasts. Philip Morris' shares rose $1.39, or 1.7 percent, to $84.96.

Six of the 10 sectors in the S&P 500 rose, led by a 2 percent rise in energy stocks as the price of crude oil turned higher after a recent slump. Consumer staple stocks declined the most.

Investors were also assessing a mixed bag of U.S. economic data.

The number of people seeking U.S. unemployment aid fell to the lowest level in 14 years last week, the Labor Department said. The decline is the latest sign that the nation's job market is strengthening.

The Federal Reserve reported that U.S. factory production rose 0.5 percent in September from the previous month. Over the past 12 months, manufacturing output has risen 3.7 percent.

Meanwhile, an index of U.S. homebuilders' confidence fell this month after four months of gains. The latest reading still reflects that most builders view sales conditions as good, however.

The report helped lift some homebuilder shares. UCP rose the most, gaining 18 cents, or 1.5 percent, to $12.39.

U.S. Treasury yields stabilized following a sharp drop the day before. The yield on the 10-year Treasury note was little changed at 2.15 percent.

Global markets also have been shaken in recent weeks by a slump in energy prices. Oil prices recovered from an early loss Thursday and ended higher.

The price of oil rebounded somewhat Thursday despite an Energy Department report showing a sharp increase in U.S. stockpiles. Benchmark U.S. crude rose 92 cents to close at $82.70 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange.

It remains 4 percent lower for the week, however, on high global supplies and weak demand. It's also sharply below its June peak of $107.26 a barrel.

Brent crude, a benchmark for international oils used by many U.S. refineries, rose 69 cents to close at $84.47 on the ICE Futures exchange in London.

In other energy futures trading on the NYMEX, wholesale gasoline rose 6.2 cents to close at $2.211 a gallon, heating oil rose 1.1 cents to close at $2.470 a gallon and natural gas fell 0.4 cent to close at $3.796 per 1,000 cubic feet.

Metals futures closed slightly lower. Gold fell $3.60 to $1,241.20 an ounce, silver fell three cents to $17.44 an ounce and copper fell three cents to $2.98 a pound.