- Associated Press - Thursday, February 24, 2011

NEW YORK — Stocks fell for a third day Thursday as concerns continued over how violent clashes in Libya would affect the global oil market. Major indexes pared steeper losses in the afternoon after oil prices fell for the first time in nine days.

Oil fell to $97.28 a barrel after the International Energy Agency said fighting between forces loyal to Moammar Gadhafi and anti-government protesters in Libya were not affecting oil inventories as much as analysts had feared. Libya is the world’s 15th largest exporter of crude, accounting for 2 percent of global daily output. Oil had traded as high as $103.41 earlier in the day.

Traders are worried that fighting could threaten Libya’s oil production and spread to other countries in the region, such as oil-rich Saudi Arabia. Higher oil prices can also slow the U.S. economy by increasing transportation costs.

Reports of ample oil inventories “calmed some of the short-term fears in the market,” said Bruce McCain, chief investment strategist at Key Private Bank. “But the fact that there is very little real information coming out the country is worrying.”

The Dow Jones industrial average fell 37.28 points, or 0.3 percent, to 12,068.50. It had been down as many as 122 points earlier in the day.

The Standard & Poor’s 500 index fell 1.30, or 0.1 percent, to 1,306.10. The Nasdaq composite gained 14.91 points, or 0.5 percent, to 2,737.90.

The mixed stock performance came the same day the Labor Department reported that fewer people applied for unemployment benefits last week, a sign that the job market is recovering. The four-week average for applications, a figure closely watched by financial analysts, fell to its lowest level in more than two and a half years.

The housing market, however, continued to lag. The Commerce Department said sales of new homes fell significantly in January.

Several companies rose after announcing better than expected earnings.

Priceline.com11 Inc. jumped 8.5 percent after the online travel service reported a 73 percent surge in fourth-quarter earnings and raised its income forecast for the current quarter. Target Corp. rose 3.5 percent after the retailer reported an 11 percent gain in profit. H&R Block Inc. rose 5 percent after the tax preparation company said it expected to report near break-even earnings in its fiscal third quarter.

Bond prices rose, pushing their yields lower. The yield on the 10-year Treasury note fell to 3.46 percent from 3.49 percent late Wednesday.

Rising and falling shares were about even on the New York Stock Exchange. Volume came to 1.2 billion shares.

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