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Stocks drift mostly lower as tensions build in Ukraine, offsetting pickup in hiring last month

NEW YORK, N.Y. - Stocks were directionless in afternoon trading Friday as tensions built in Ukraine, where the region of Crimea was preparing for a referendum on whether to split away and become part of Russia. Those concerns offset an encouraging pickup in hiring by U.S. employers last month.

KEEPING SCORE: The Standard & Poor's 500 index lost four points, or 0.2 per cent, to 1,873 as of 2:30 p.m. Eastern. The Dow Jones industrial average was down six points, or less than 0.1 per cent, at 16,415. The Nasdaq composite lost 31 points, or 0.7 per cent, to 4,320. Three stocks fell for every two that rose on the New York Stock Exchange.

BIGGEST LOSERS: Biotechnology and health care stocks were among the biggest decliners. Biogen Idec was down roughly 4 per cent. Gilead Sciences was down 2 per cent. The Nasdaq composite index is more heavily weighted to biotechnology and specialty pharmaceutical companies, which is part of the reason the index is down much more than the Dow or S&P 500.

JOBS: The Labor Department's report of 175,000 job additions last month was much better than expected. Economists had been forecasting an increase of 145,000 jobs, according to FactSet. Investors had low expectations because of winter storms that hit much of the country last month. The positive job figures were a relief because the harsh weather closed factories, lowered auto sales, and caused existing-home sales to plummet.

"People are hoping and praying that the recent slowness was weather related, and while this report gave people a little bit of hope that is the case, it is still too early to tell," said Krishna Memani, chief investment officer of OppenheimerFunds.

BONDS DROP: Bond prices fell. The yield on the 10-year Treasury note rose to 2.79 per cent from 2.74 per cent late Thursday. The yield had been as low as 2.60 per cent earlier this week.

DON'T FORGET UKRAINE: Lawmakers in Russian-occupied Crimea unanimously declared they wanted to join Russia and would put the decision to voters in 10 days. President Barack Obama and several other Western leaders have condemned the referendum.

"The concerns on the geopolitical front are overshadowing the good news we got from the jobs number," said Dean Junkans, chief investment officer at Wells Fargo Private Bank, which manages $170 billion in assets.

BIG GAIN FOR BIG LOTS: The discount retail chain Big Lots soared $6.10, or 21 per cent, to $35.36. Big Lots reported a decline in fourth-quarter profits but the company's sales came in much better than expected. The company also said it would shut down its struggling Canadian operations.

The Canadian Press

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