The Dow Jones industrial average dropped below the dreaded 10,000 point today and then climbed back into positive territory, giving investors hope that maybe the market has hit the bottom and bounced.

Opening sharply lower after the Conference Board's index of leading economic indicators fell for the first time in more than a year, the Dow plunged almost 100 points, dropping to 9,947, its first drop below 10,000 since last November.

The drop in the leading indicators renewed concerns that the June slowdown shown in retail sales and other statistics was more than just a "soft patch" as Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan had described it earlier this week.

The index, which is intended to predict where the economy is going in the next three to six months, had pointed upward for 13 consecutive months, but slipped by 2 percent in June.

But the day's other economic report was more positive. New applications for unemployment benefits declined by 11,000 to 339,000 for the week. The number of people drawing jobless benefits also fell, providing further evidence the job market is improving.

The Dow slowly, fitfully, climbed back from its low, finally breaking into positive territory about an hour before the closing bell. Trading ended with the index up just 4 points to 10,050.33, but that was a whole lot better than hitting a new low.

The Standard & Poor's 500 stock index also struggled back to close with a small gain, up just shy of 3 points at 1,096.84.

Surprisingly the oft-battered Nasdaq Stock Market composite index was the day's strongest performer, climbing almost 15 points to 1,889.06. Today strong earnings by Qualcomm made up for the weakness reported by mobile phone rival Motorola, which took tech stocks down the day before.

Shares of Verizon Communications, the local-phone company for the Washington area, and Nextel, the cellphone company based in Northern Virginia, led communications stocks higher while AT&T Corp., the granddaddy of the industry, abandoned any pretense of industry leadership. AT&T, the company that put telephones in American homes a century ago, announced it will give up trying to market local and long distance phone service to consumers so that it can concentrate on the business market. The withdrawal came after AT&T's quarterly profits dropped to $108 million from $536 million.