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The Dow Now: Merck Goes Ex-Dividend, Slides on the Day

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UnitedHealth was also down on the day.

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MINYANVILLE ORIGINAL Despite positive data on the unemployment front, investors remained wary about placing bets because of continued fiscal cliff uncertainty, with the stock market struggling for direction in mid-Thursday trading.

According to the Labor Department, initial jobless claims for the week ended Dec. 8 came in at 343,000, a drop of 29,000 from the previous week's upwardly revised number of 372,000.

Nonetheless, the slow negotiations between the White House and House Speaker John Boehner to reach a deal on tax increases and spending cuts remained a worry for investors.

"With the suggestion that they're not any closer than they were a few days ago, we're really just in a market that's trying to figure out what the next catalyst might be," Kate Warne, investment strategist at Edward Jones in St Louis, told Reuters.

"I think we need to see either an actual plan or signs that they've worked out a way to be sure they don't end up disagreeing at the last minute. Either of those would be positive, but so far we're not seeing anything that suggests either one."

The Dow Jones Industrial Average (INDEXDJX:.DJI) was down 0.22% to 13,216.69 points as of 12:05 p.m. EST.

Hewlett-Packard (NYSE:HPQ) was among the Dow's top intraday gainers, advancing 0.55% to $14.61. It was reported earlier that HP had snagged a contract to provide 1.5 million computers to students in India. The stock, hit by Autonomy-related woes in the past month, has had a good week of trading, having gained 4.23% since last Friday.

Caterpillar (NYSE:CAT) also improved 0.61% to $88.49. On Wednesday, the industrial giant said that it would be accelerating its dividend payout to avert the fiscal cliff. On Dec 31, the company will pay its fiscal 2013 first quarter dividend of $0.52 a share to shareholders of record as of Dec 24.

Merck (NYSE:MRK) was the heaviest decliner, sliding 1.62% to $44.11. With rumors swirling that Bausch & Lomb is exploring a sale, industry insiders are speculating that Merck, along with fellow pharmaceutical giants such as Sanofi (NYSE:SNY), GlaxoSmithKline (NYSE:GSK), and Abbott (NYSE:ABT), could be a potential buyer. Shares of Merck went ex-dividend today, with shareholders as of yesterday's close eligible for a $0.43-per-share dividend.

UnitedHealth Group (NYSE:UNH) also dipped 0.73% to $54.85.

Twitter: @sterlingwong
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