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North American stock markets swung between small gains and losses in the opening minutes of trading on Thursday.

In Toronto, the S&P/TSX moved ahead 46.32 points, to 11,611.12. The materials sector had the strongest start, rising 1.4 per cent. Shares of Research In Motion fell almost 4 per cent, touching a new 52-week low after a top sales executive in charge of the company's global sales strategy quit.

In New York, the S&P 500 was almost flat at 1,319.38 and the Dow Jones industrial average dipped 11.88 points, to 12,484.27. The utilities and health care sector looked the strongest, as investors looked for less risky assets.

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Early gains may prove difficult to sustain today given the barrage of negative economic reports coming from around the globe.

In Germany, the manufacturing sector shrank at the fastest rate in three years in May and business sentiment decreased for the first time in seven months.

Business output in the euro zone contracted in May at its sharpest pace since mid-2009, according to the latest purchasing managers' index produced by the financial services firm Markit. And an initial gauge of China's manufacturing activity also fell in May.

Growth in U.S. manufacturing also slowed last month, dampened by fewer exports to Europe and Chinese, a new industry survey from Markit said. The firm's U.S. "flash" manufacturing purchasing managers index (PMI) fell to 53.9, a three-month low, from 56.0 in April. A reading above 50 indicates expansion. The results may prove a harbinger to the Institute for Supply Management's survey, which is due on June 1.

Shares of Royal Bank of Canada fell 1 per cent. The country's largest bank said profit fell 7 per cent in the second quarter, driven by a $202-million loss the bank took on the buyout of RBC Dexia Investor Services from its partner in April. Shares of Toronto-Dominion Bank advanced 1 per cent after the lender posted a 20 per cent rise in earnings, but signalled that the pace of earnings growth will be difficult to maintain, with loan growth slowing and low interest rates squeezing profit margins.

In the U.S., shares of Hewlett-Packard Co. climbed 5 per cent after the company posted results that topped expectations. The world's largest PC and printer company also announced 27,000 job cuts as part of its restructuring plan.

And despite the messy launch of its IPO last Friday, and investor lawsuits alleging inadequate disclosure, Facebook is starting to feel some investor love. The shares gained more than 2 per cent to trade at $32.58 (U.S.).

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The price of oil jumped $1.17, to $91.07 a barrel, after briefly dipping below the $90 threshold on Wednesday.

Gold reversed course after three days of loses, rising by 0.4 per cent, to $1,568.00 an ounce.

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