NEW YORK — The Dow edged higher Thursday, keeping the index on track for its best start to the year in more than two decades.

The Dow Jones industrial average rose 4 points to 13,938 as of 10:26 a.m. The index has gained 6.4 percent so far this month, its best January performance since 1989, according to data from S&P Dow Jones Indices.

The Standard and Poor’s 500 was flat at 1,501. The Nasdaq composite gained 8 points to 3,150.

Stocks got a small boost after the Chicago Business Barometer for January came in at 55.6, a higher reading than analysts had forecast, according to data provider FactSet. Readings above 50 indicate that economic activity is expanding.

MasterCard rose $3.66 to $519.40 after the company said that net income rebounded strongly in the fourth quarter as its overseas business continued to expand. The company also benefited by comparison to the year-earlier quarter, which was weighed down by a massive legal charge. JDS Uniphase added $2.43 to $14.83 after the technology company reported stronger-than-expected earnings on improved revenue and margins late Wednesday.

January’s rally slowed yesterday after a report showed that the economy unexpectedly contracted in the fourth quarter of last year. Stocks have been rising after lawmakers reached a budget deal to prevent the U.S. from going over the “fiscal cliff,” and on optimism that the housing market is recovering and that firms are slowly starting to hire more workers.

More economic reports Thursday gave investors a better picture of the health of the economy.

The number of Americans seeking unemployment aid rose sharply last week but remained at a level consistent with moderate hiring. Weekly applications for unemployment benefits leapt 38,000 to a seasonally adjusted 368,000, the Labor Department said Thursday. The increase comes after applications plummeted in the previous two weeks to five-year lows.

U.S. consumers increased their spending in December at a slower pace, while their income grew by the largest amount in eight years, a report showed on Thursday. Consumer spending rose 0.2 percent last month, at a slightly slower than the 0.4 percent increase in November, the Commerce Department said.

The yield on the 10-year Treasury note, which moves inversely to its price, rose 1 basis point to 2 percent.

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