NEW YORK (CNNMoney) -- Stocks sputtered Thursday, but managed to close the day slightly higher.
Investors grew concerned about the health of the U.S. economy following the release of weak reports on retail sales and initial jobless claims.
Those numbers dampened investors' enthusiasm over surprisingly successful bond auctions conducted by Spain and Italy Thursday morning, the first of 2012.
"We heard all kinds of wonderfully optimistic anecdotal reports from the field that it was a record holiday season," said Sal Arnuk, co-head of trading at Themis Trading. "Now we see that the supposed record sales were not so great."
Major indexes hovered around the breakeven line for most of the day. The Dow Jones industrial average () closed up 22 points, or 0.2%. The S&P 500 ( ) gained 3 points, or 0.2%. The Nasdaq ( ) moved up 14 points, or 0.5%.
The mix of positive news from Europe and lackluster performance of the U.S. economy is an inversion of what's been driving markets for the past several months. Investors have mostly been digesting better-than-expected U.S. economic reports while seeing reasons to fear Europe's sovereign debt crisis.
"The news today is almost a wash," said Ryan Detrick, senior technical strategist at Schaeffer's Investment Research. "Overall, we're encouraged that we've had a good start to the year. We're not giving back those gains."
Two weeks into 2012, all three indexes have gained more than 1%, after ending the year roughly flat.
During Spain and Italy's debt auctions early Thursday, both nations successfully raised more funds than expected and at lower borrowing rates than they paid a month ago.
Investors had been demanding higher interest rates, stoking concerns about the governments' solvency. Both Italy and Spain need to refinance billions of euros of debt this year.
U.S. stocks ended Wednesday's trading session little changed, as concerns about Europe's weak economy and debt crisis weighed on the market.
Economy: Initial unemployment claims for the week ended Jan. 7 totaled 399,000, the U.S. government reported, which was worse than expected. Claims were forecasted to come in at 375,000, according to analysts surveyed by Briefing.com.
Meanwhile, retail sales in December rose 0.1%. They were expected to have increased by 0.4%.
World markets: The European Central Bank held rates steady at 1% on Thursday. ECB President Mario Draghi, expected to signal a prolonged period of low interest rates in the future, wouldn't make any commitments during a press conference following the rate announcement.
Draghi also said that there are signs that the interbank funding market in Europe is improving, following the ECB's long-term refinancing operations in December.
European stocks ended the day mixed, losing some of their earlier momentum. Britain's FTSE 100 () shed 0.2%, the DAX ( ) in Germany gained 0.4% and France's CAC 40 ( ) dropped 0.02%.
Asian markets ended mostly lower, after a report showed inflation slowed in China, but not quite as much as expected.
The Consumer Price Index released by China's government showed prices were up 4.1% in the 12 months ending in December. It marked a slowdown from 4.2% in November. Economists had expected the inflation rate to fall to 4%.
The Hang Seng () in Hong Kong lost 0.3% and Japan's Nikkei ( ) fell 0.7%, while the Shanghai Composite ( ) was flat.
Companies: Shares of Sears Holdings ( , Fortune 500) ended the day up 3%, after dropping more than 12% during the trading day. Bloomberg reported that CIT Group ( , Fortune 500) is halting loans to the retailers' suppliers.
Shares of retailer Williams-Sonoma () fell 12% after the company lowered its outlook for fourth-quarter earnings. Sporting good retailer Big 5 Sporting Goods ( ) closed down 13%.
Oil for February delivery lost $1.73 to $99.14 a barrel.
Gold futures for February delivery gained $8.10 to $1,647.70 an ounce.
Bonds: The price on the benchmark 10-year U.S. Treasury rose, pushing the yield down to 1.91%.
|4 federal agencies to shut Friday|
|Japan plunge spooks global markets|
|Wall Street braces for China and Fed fallout|
|China factory activity contracts in May|
|Tesla repays federal loan nearly 10 years early|
|Overnight Avg Rate||Latest||Change||Last Week|
|30 yr fixed||3.73%||3.65%|
|15 yr fixed||2.85%||2.79%|
|30 yr refi||3.72%||3.64%|
|15 yr refi||2.85%||2.78%|
Today's featured rates: