Hewlett-Packard helped pull the Dow Jones industrial average to a slight gain Thursday, giving the index only its fourth gain this month.
Stocks flipped between gains and losses throughout the day after a meeting of European leaders failed to deliver new steps to ease the region's debt crisis.
The Dow closed up 33.60 points at 12,529.75. Fears that Europe's troubles could turn into a worldwide financial crisis have pushed the 30-stock average down 5 percent this month, erasing most of its gains for the year.
U.S economic news gave traders little direction. Orders for long-lasting factory goods edged up in April, but a key category that tracks business investment spending fell for the second month in a row. The number of people applying for unemployment benefits dipped last week.
The potential for bad news to roil markets is so high that many investors would prefer to sit it out, said Stephen Carl, head equity trader at the Williams Capital Group.
"Uncertainty is playing a big part here," Carl said. "You don't know which way things are going to go."
Hewlett-Packard rose 3 percent after the maker of personal computers and printers said it plans to purge 27,000 employees, nearly 8 percent of the company's payroll. H-P expects the layoffs, part of a turnaround program under CEO Meg Whitman, to save $3 billion or more.
European leaders wrapped up their latest summit Thursday with no new concrete steps to fix the continent's financial crisis, even as worries rise about a messy Greek exit from the euro currency union.
Markets in Europe recovered from a huge sell-off the day before. Germany's DAX increased 0.5 percent and the CAC-40 in France 1 percent.
In U.S. trading, the Standard & Poor's 500 index edged up 1.82 to 1,320.68. The Nasdaq composite index fell 10.74 points to 2,839.38.
Fears that Greece will drop the euro and set off a wider financial crisis have driven traders out of stocks and into the Treasury market this month. The surge in demand for Treasurys has knocked yields to all-time lows.
As a result, the U.S. federal government has been borrowing from bond markets at ever cheaper rates. The Treasury auctioned off seven-notes Thursday afternoon at 1.20 percent, the lowest rate on record.
Airline stocks surged. Analysts at JPMorgan Chase expect a drop in jet-fuel prices over the past three months to lift airlines' profits. US Airways Group jumped 11 percent and Delta Air Lines rose 5 percent. Southwest Airlines climbed 5 percent after the company said it plans to offer international flights from Houston's Hobby Airport.
Among other stocks making big moves:
_ Tiffany & Co. plunged 7 percent after the luxury retailer cut its 2012 sales forecast, citing slower spending growth in the U.S. and other countries.
_ Data-storage company NetApp sank 12 percent. NetApp expects much weaker profit in the current quarter as a result of "increasing uncertainty" in the global economy.
_ Pandora Media surged 12 percent after the online radio provider reported a smaller quarterly loss than analysts had expected. Ad sales and subscriptions soared over the year before. Pandora said it accounted for nearly 6 percent of all radio listening in the U.S..