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U.S. stocks edge higher; Protective Life soars

Specialist Jason Hardzewicz, left, and trader Vincent Quinones

Specialist Jason Hardzewicz, left, and trader Vincent Quinones work on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange Monday, June 2, 2014. Credit: AP / Richard Drew

Stocks are slightly higher in afternoon trading Wednesday, erasing an early decline.

Trading was muted following discouraging reports on hiring at U.S. companies and the trade deficit. Protective Life soared on news that it was being acquired by a Japanese company.

KEEPING SCORE: The Standard & Poor's 500 index rose three points, or 0.2 percent, to 1,927 as of 2:17 p.m. on Wall Street. The Dow Jones industrial average rose eight points, or 0.1 percent, to 16,730. The Nasdaq composite rose 20 points, or 0.5 percent, to 4,255.

The Nasdaq got a boost from Apple, its biggest component, which gained $9.39, or 1.1 percent, to $646.52.

Apple's seven-for-one stock split will happen after the close of business Friday. At the current price, Apple's new shares would be worth $92.36 after the split takes effect on Monday.

JOB WATCH: The payroll processor ADP said U.S. businesses slowed their hiring last month, adding just 179,000 workers to their payrolls. That's the weakest hiring in four months and well below what economists had expected.

"Just when investors were getting comfortable with the positive data trend, the U.S. economy hands them a monkey wrench," said Doug Cote, chief market strategist for Voya Investment Management, in a note to investors.

The report suggests the government's monthly job market survey, due out Friday, could reveal a modest slowdown in broader hiring trends. Economists believe U.S. employers added 220,000 jobs in May, a pullback from April, which ended with a surprisingly strong 288,000 job additions.

ACROSS THE ATLANTIC: Investors in the United States and in Europe are waiting to hear from the European Central Bank on Thursday, when the bank is expected to announce its latest decision on interest rate policy. The bank is expected to cut rates to help stimulate growth across the eurozone, which has lagged behind the U.S.

Speculation over the ECB's interest rate decision has sent foreign buyers into the U.S. bond market in recent weeks. The yield on the 10-year Treasury note was little changed at 2.60 percent. It went as low as 2.44 percent last week, the lowest level in almost a year.

"The ECB has conditioned the market to expect 'good things,' " said Bob Doll, chief equity strategist at Nuveen Investments.

SUNNY DAYS: First Solar rose $2.82 or 5 percent, to $66.75 after the company announced it was buying German electric power operator Skytron Energy for an undisclosed amount.

INSURANCE DEAL: Protective Life jumped $10.61, or 18 percent, to $69.34 after Japanese insurance company Dai-ichi Life said it would buy the company for $70 a share, or $5.7 billion.

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