By Noel Randewich
NEW YORK -- U.S. stocks ended marginally lower Thursday as lingering worries about upcoming corporate earnings reports offset enthusiasm about a trio of soaring Wall Street debuts.
Weighing on the S&P 500 were Apple and General Electric, which is expected to report its first-quarter results Friday before the start of trading.
%VIRTUAL-WSSCourseInline-975%The S&P 500's top gainer, Netflix (NFLX), closed 18.2 percent higher a day after the video streaming service posted better-than-expected results.
Shares of Etsy (ETSY), an online marketplace for handmade goods and crafts, finished 87.5 percent higher and private-equity backed Party City (PRTY) stock jumped 21.8 percent in their IPOs.
The stock of electronic trading firm Virtu Financial (VIRT) closed 16.7 percent higher in its market debut in a sign that public angst over "high-frequency" trading is waning.
The Dow Jones industrial average (^DJI) fell 6.84 points, or 0.04 percent, to end at 18,105.77. The Standard & Poor's 500 index (^GSPC) lost 1.64 points, or 0.08 percent, to 2,104.99 and the Nasdaq composite (^IXIC) dropped 3.23 points, or 0.06 percent, to 5,007.79.
Of the 51 companies in the S&P 500 that have reported so far, 76.5 percent exceeded profit expectations, well above the long-term average of 63 percent.
After mixed trading sessions this week, major indexes are about 1 percent below record highs despite recent concerns about weakness in first-quarter earnings. But it is too early to pronounce the March-quarter earnings season an unexpected success, strategists said.
"Where are we on earnings? We know they're going to be negative year over year but just how negative are they going to be?" said Jim Bianco, president of Bianco Research in Chicago.
"It's a game. The analysts will cut too far so the companies can beat."
Apple (AAPL) closed 0.48 percent lower at $126.17 while GE (GE) ended down 0.65 percent at $27.28, with analysts on average expecting the conglomerate to post a drop in quarterly earnings, according to Thomson Reuters data.
First-quarter earnings for S&P 500 companies are expected to have declined 2.6 percent from a year ago, according to Thomson Reuters data, hurt by low oil prices, a strong dollar and extreme weather in the eastern United States. Revenue is forecast down 2.8 percent from a year ago.
SanDisk (SNDK) lost 4.51 percent to close at $67.91 after its forecast. Philip Morris International (PM) stock surged 8.74 percent to $84.96 after the cigarette maker's revenue and profit fell less than expected in the first quarter.
After the bell, Mattel (MAT) posted quarterly results that sent its shares 7.7 percent higher.
On Thursday, declining issues outnumbered advancing ones on the NYSE by 1,700 to 1,333, for a 1.28-to-1 ratio on the downside; on the Nasdaq, 1,434 issues fell and 1,289 advanced, for a 1.11-to-1 ratio.
The S&P 500 posted 8 new 52-week highs and no new lows; the Nasdaq composite recorded 102 new highs and 17 new lows.
-With additional reporting by Ryan Vlastelica and Caroline Valetkevitch.
What to watch Friday:
The Labor Department releases the Consumer Price Index for March at 8:30 a.m. Eastern time.
At 10 a.m., the Conference Board releases Leading Indicators for March, and the University of Michigan releases its preliminary survey of consumer sentiment for April.
These selected companies are scheduled to release quarterly financial results:
General Electric (GE)
Honeywell International (HON)
Reynolds American (RAI)
Seagate Technology (STX)
Synchrony Financial (SYF)