Stocks flipped between gains and losses throughout the day after a meeting of European leaders failed to deliver new steps to ease the region's debt crisis.
The Dow closed up 33.60 points at 12,529.75. Fears that Europe's troubles could turn into a worldwide financial crisis have pushed the 30-stock average down 5 percent this month, erasing most of its gains for the year.
U.S economic news gave traders little direction. Orders for long-lasting factory goods edged up in April, but a key category that tracks business investment spending fell for the second month in a row. The number of people applying for unemployment benefits dipped last week.
"Uncertainty is playing a big part here," Carl said. "You don't know which way things are going to go."
Hewlett-Packard rose 3 percent after the maker of personal computers and printers said it plans to purge 27,000 employees, nearly 8 percent of the company's payroll. H-P expects the layoffs, part of a turnaround program under CEO Meg Whitman, to save $3 billion or more.
European leaders wrapped up their latest summit Thursday with no new concrete steps to fix the continent's financial crisis, even as worries rise about a messy Greek exit from the euro currency union.
Fears that Greece will drop the euro and set off a wider financial crisis have driven traders out of stocks and into the Treasury market this month. The surge in demand for Treasurys has knocked yields to all-time lows.
As a result, the U.S. federal government has been borrowing from bond markets at ever cheaper rates. The Treasury auctioned off seven-notes Thursday afternoon at 1.20 percent, the lowest rate on record.
Airline stocks surged. Analysts at JPMorgan Chase expect a drop in jet-fuel prices over the past three months to lift airlines' profits. US Airways Group jumped 11 percent and Delta Air Lines rose 5 percent. Southwest Airlines climbed 5 percent after the company said it plans to offer international flights from Houston's Hobby Airport.
Among other stocks making big moves:
— Tiffany & Co. plunged 7 percent after the luxury retailer cut its 2012 sales forecast, citing slower spending growth in the U.S. and other countries.
— Data-storage company NetApp sank 12 percent. NetApp expects much weaker profit in the current quarter as a result of "increasing uncertainty" in the global economy.
— Pandora Media surged 12 percent after the online radio provider reported a smaller quarterly loss than analysts had expected. Ad sales and subscriptions soared over the year before. Pandora said it accounted for nearly 6 percent of all radio listening in the U.S..