* U.S. factory sector contracts; jobless claims fall
* Nordstrom jumps after profit beat
* Boeing rises; Reuters reports move to increase 737 MAX production
* Dow rises 0.19%, S&P drops 0.05%, Nasdaq falls 0.34% (Updates to late afternoon, changes byline, adds NEW YORK to dateline)
By April Joyner
NEW YORK, Aug 22 (Reuters) - The benchmark S&P 500 struggled for direction on Thursday as strong results from Nordstrom Inc and a fall in U.S. jobless claims offset data showing a contraction in U.S. manufacturing activity.
Stocks initially rose at the market open as shares of Nordstrom jumped after the department store's quarterly profit beat estimates, joining Target Corp and Lowe's Cos Inc in delivering upbeat retail numbers. Nordstrom shares were last up 16.1%.
Data from the U.S. Labor Department, which showed initial claims for state unemployment benefits dropped more than expected last week, pointed to a robust job market and a strong underpinning for consumer activity.
By contrast, IHS Markit's Flash Purchasing Managers' Index showed manufacturing activity contracting in August for the first time in nearly a decade. The reading prompted concern among some investors that economic weakness abroad and an escalating trade war with China could drag down the U.S. economy. Following the data release, the yield curve between two-year and 10-year Treasury notes briefly inverted.
"The fact that manufacturing didn't just slow down but contracted, that was a little surprising," said Oliver Pursche, chief market strategist at Bruderman Asset Management in New York.
Yet, Pursche said, "You had decent unemployment claims, they were slightly better than expected, so that's a counter act. That's why we don't expect there to be any kind of deep recession."
The Dow Jones Industrial Average rose 49.37 points, or 0.19%, to 26,252.1, the S&P 500 lost 1.44 points, or 0.05%, to 2,922.99 and the Nasdaq Composite dropped 27.02 points, or 0.34%, to 7,993.19.
The Dow received a boost from Boeing Co shares, which rose 4.2% as Reuters reported that the planemaker is looking to increase production of its grounded 737 MAX jets as early as October, suggesting the aircraft's return to service may be on track for the fourth quarter.
Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell's scheduled speech on Friday at an annual gathering of central bankers in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, remained in focus. Several market strategists said they expected market activity to be muted on Thursday as investors awaited clues on the U.S. central bank's course of monetary policy.
"The market is pausing as investors are waiting for big news tomorrow on Chairman Powell's speech," said James Ragan, director of wealth management research at D.A. Davidson in Seattle.
In interviews on Thursday, Philadelphia Fed President Patrick Harker and Kansas City Fed President Esther George hinted at less dovish stances. George said she does not yet see a signal of a downturn in the U.S. economy, while Harker said he does not see the case for additional stimulus. Stocks moved lower following Harker's comments.
Declining issues outnumbered advancing ones on the NYSE by a 1.04-to-1 ratio; on Nasdaq, a 1.23-to-1 ratio favored decliners.
The S&P 500 posted 39 new 52-week highs and four new lows; the Nasdaq Composite recorded 58 new highs and 54 new lows. (Reporting by April Joyner; Additional reporting by Akanksha Rana and Medha Singh in Bengaluru; Editing by Shounak Dasgupta and Tom Brown)