Apple and other technology companies led the stock market up for the second day in a row Thursday.
The gains came a day after Apple took its worst fall in four years. In separate interviews, CEO Tim Cook said Apple will produce one of its Mac computers in the United States next year and will spend $100 million in 2013 to shift production of the line from China.
The tech giant's stock gained $8.45 to $547.24
Investors' biggest concern remains the automatic tax increases and federal spending cuts scheduled to start Jan. 1. "Everybody is paying close attention to the soap opera in Washington," said John Canally, investment strategist and economist at LPL Financial.
President Barack Obama said Wednesday that the White House and Republicans could reach an agreement "in about a week" if the Republicans drop their opposition to raising taxes on making more than $250,000 a year.
Most investors believe Obama and Congressional Republicans will strike a budget deal to avoid this "fiscal cliff" before the year is out. Until they reach an agreement, however, the stock market will likely be hostage to news out of Washington.
In other trading, the Standard & Poor's 500 index rose 4.66 points to 1,413.94, while the Nasdaq composite climbed 15.57 points to 2,989.27. In the market for U.S. government bonds, the yield on the 10-year Treasury note ended the day at 1.59 percent, the same as late Wednesday.
The U.S. Labor Department said unemployment benefits applications dropped 25,000 last week to 370,000, a level consistent with modest hiring. The decline was also a sign that the spike in applications caused by Superstorm Sandy has faded.
The government will release its closely watched monthly jobs report Friday. Private economists forecast that hiring in November sank from the previous month. They expect the unemployment rate to remain unchanged at 7.9 percent.
More companies announced plans to reward investors with dividends this month in case taxes rise next year.
Sirius XM Radio said it will issue a one-time dividend of 5 cents per share at the end of the month and spend up to $2 billion buying back its stock. Safeway shifted a payment scheduled for January to Dec. 31. And Landstar Systems, a transportation company, will pay shareholders 50 cents a share this month instead of paying dividends for the next two years.
Dividends, now taxed at 15 percent, will be treated like ordinary income next year unless Congress and the White House extend current tax breaks as part of a budget deal.
Among other stocks making moves:
— Akamai Technologies jumped 10 percent, the best gain in the S&P 500 index. Akamai, which helps websites work faster, forged a partnership with AT&T to deliver online content. Its stock gained $3.56 to $39.06.
— H&R Block surged 5 percent after posting revenue and earnings that beat analysts' estimates. The country's largest tax preparation company reported a smaller loss, helped by cost-cutting efforts. It typically turns in a loss in the August-to-October period because it takes in most of its revenue during the U.S. tax season. H&R Block gained 89 cents to $18.26.