* Initial jobless claims climb more than expected
* Factory orders fall for sixth straight month
* AbbVie to buy Pharmacyclics for about $21 bln
* Indexes: Dow up 0.07 pct, S&P off 0.08 pct, Nasdaq up 0.02 pct (Updates to afternoon, adds comments)
By Sinead Carew
NEW YORK, March 5 (Reuters) - U.S. stocks were little changed on Thursday, after two days of declines on the S&P 500, as economic data did little to alter expectations on the timing of an interest rate hike by the Federal Reserve.
Initial jobless claims rose to 320,000 in the latest week, above the 295,000 estimate and 313,000 in the prior week. The disappointing claims numbers come after a weaker-than-expected private payrolls report on Wednesday and ahead of Friday’s monthly employment report.
Investors were looking ahead to the jobs report due out on Friday to help them assess the timing of the Fed’s first interest rate hike in years, said Brian Battle, director of trading at Performance Trust Capital Partners, in Chicago.
“We’re kind of tapping our foot for tomorrow’s non-farm payroll,” said Battle. “The Federal Reserve made it very clear they’re going to raise rates but its going to be data dependent. It’s one of the benchmark numbers they’re looking at.”
At 12:50 p.m., the Dow Jones industrial average rose 11.85 points, or 0.07 percent, to 18,108.75, the S&P 500 lost 1.64 points, or 0.08 percent, to 2,096.89 and the Nasdaq Composite added 0.99 points, or 0.02 percent, to 4,968.13.
A separate report showed new orders for U.S. factory goods unexpectedly fell in January for a sixth month, a sign of weakness in the manufacturing sector.
As investors attempt to speculate on the timing of the Fed’s impending rate increase, the equity market’s advance has slowed since the March 2 highs for both the Dow and S&P 500, with each index down 0.9 percent.
“There is nothing really to drive sentiment one way or the other that is going to change people’s perceptions on anything at the moment so therefore you are just getting this churning back and forth,” said Ken Polcari, director of the NYSE floor division at O‘Neil Securities in New York.
AbbVie is to buy Pharmacyclics for about $21 billion, giving it access to what is expected to be one of the world’s top-selling cancer drugs and expanding its reach in the profitable oncology field. Pharmacyclics shares jumped 10.5 percent to $254.63 while AbbVie lost 4 percent to $57.68.
Kroger rose 5.6 percent to $73.56 after the biggest U.S. supermarket operator reported a 23 percent rise in quarterly profit and forecast full-year earnings above expectations.
The European Central Bank said it will start its new government bond-buying program of 60 billion euros a month on March 9 and raised its economic growth forecast for 2015. It boosted its 2016 inflation forecast to 1.5 percent.
Advancing issues outnumbered declining ones on the NYSE by 1,520 to 1,408, for a 1.08-to-1 ratio; on the Nasdaq, 1,374 issues rose and 1,265 fell for a 1.09-to-1 ratio.
The benchmark S&P 500 index was posting 20 new 52-week highs and 2 new lows; the Nasdaq Composite was recording 81 new highs and 30 new lows. (Additional reporting by Chuck Mikolajczak, Editing by Bernadette Baum)