NEW YORK – A surprise jump in applications for unemployment benefits and mixed earnings from large U.S. companies kept stocks on a short leash Thursday. Indexes ended slightly higher, with the Standard & Poor’s 500 closing a half point below 1,300.

The Dow Jones industrial average traded above 12,000 for most of the day but failed to close above that level for the second day in a row. The Dow hasn’t closed above 12,000 since June 19, 2008, just as the financial crisis was worsening.

Procter & Gamble Co., the maker of consumer products like Tide detergent, fell 2.9 percent, the largest drop among the 30 companies that make up the Dow Jones average. P&G said rising commodity prices are pinching its profits.

AT&T Inc. fell 2 percent after saying that new wireless contracts fell to the lowest level in more than five years. Caterpillar Inc. rose 0.9 percent after its fourth-quarter profit quadrupled on strong global demand for mining and construction equipment.

The S&P 500 rose 2.91 points, or 0.2 percent, to close at 1,299.54. The last time the index closed above 1,300 was Aug. 28, 2008.

The Dow inched up 4.39 points, or 0.1 percent, to close at 11,989.83. The index broke through 12,000 Wednesday for the first time since June 2008 but slipped in the late afternoon.

The Nasdaq composite index gained 15.78, or 0.6 percent, to 2,755.28.

First-time applications for unemployment rose to 454,000 last week, the highest level since late October. Economists had expected the number to rise to 407,000. Snowstorms in some parts of the country forced companies to lay off workers, economists said.

Netflix Inc. jumped 15 percent to $210. After the market closed Wednesday, Netflix reported that its subscriber base rose above 20 million customers. The stock has quadrupled in the past 12 months.

Rising stocks narrowly outpaced falling ones on the New York Stock Exchange. Volume was relatively thin at 992 million shares.