US stocks finish mixed

Stocks in the United States ended a listless session little changed today as cautious investors found few reasons to put money into the market, even as upbeat remarks on Alcoa and General Motors helped prop up the Dow Jones industrials.

Monday’s aimless trading followed steep losses late last week as Wall Street grew uneasy about the possibility of more interest rate rises from the Federal Reserve. On Friday, upbeat employment data fuelled worries about economic strength, another reason for the Fed to stay its course.

Art Hogan, chief market strategist for Jefferies & Co., said data on jobless claims later this week should draw a reaction from traders as they try to decipher the Fed’s stance on inflation and the pace of domestic employment growth. For now, however, Wall Street will be idle without much news to drive it, he said.

“I think we’re going through this natural vacuum in the news cycle where we have a quiet economic calendar and the fourth-quarter earnings reports are slowing down,” Hogan said. “It’s difficult to generate any interest in the market.”

The Dow rose 4.65, or 0.04%, to 10,798.27.

Broader stock indicators were mixed. The Standard & Poor’s 500 index added 0.99, or 0.08%, to 1,265.02, and the Nasdaq composite index fell 3.78, or 0.17%, to 2,258.80.

Bonds slipped, with the yield on the 10-year Treasury note rising to 4.54% from 4.53% late Friday, although the yield curve remained inverted as the two-year note edged up to 4.61%. The US dollar was mixed against other major currencies, while gold prices slipped.

News that Iran has stopped cooperating with UN officials over its nuclear arms program sparked fears about disruptions from one of the world’s biggest oil suppliers and drove crude futures above 66dollars early in the session. However, a barrel of light crude slid 26 cents to settle at 65.11dollars on the New York Mercantile Exchange.

Analysts at JPMorgan boosted Alcoa to “overweight” on indications that the market is ignoring strong aluminum prices and their potential impact on earnings, lifting its stock 1.45dollars to 32.03dollars. JPMorgan also upgraded rival Alcan, which added 1.72dollars to 49.78dollars.

American International Group, another Dow component, rose 66 cents to 66.01dollars after The Wall Street Journal said the insurance firm is near a deal with regulators to settle accounting fraud and other allegations.

Several analysts said GM, the world’s biggest automaker, may consider cutting its dividend and review bids for a majority stake in finance unit General Motors Acceptance Corp. GM gained 19 cents to end at 23.34dollars.

Apparel retailer Talbots Inc. said it was buying women’s clothing designer J. Jill Group Inc. for about 517 million dollars in cash, trumping a earlier bid from Liz Claiborne Inc. J. Jill surged 4.37dollars to 23.57dollars, while Talbots dropped 93 cents to 26.34dollars and Liz Claiborne fell 5 cents to 34.27dollars.

In earnings news, health benefits provider Humana said its quarterly profit rose 34%, helped by an upswing in Medicare enrollment and sharp gains in its commercial and government segments.

Humana nonetheless fell 1.11dollars to 53.79dollars.

Hasbro, the nation’s No. 2 toymaker, posted a 15 percent rise in fourth-quarter profit as domestic toy sales pushed overall revenue higher. Its shares dropped 13 cents to 20.62dollars, off a multiyear high of 22.35dollars.

Ahead of their earnings reports after the closing bell, entertainment conglomerate Walt Disney gained 3 cents to 25.04dollars and Pizza Hut parent Yum Brands rose 67 cents to 51.12dollars.

Advancing issues led decliners by 19 to 14 on the New York Stock Exchange, where volume of 1.53 billion shares fell short of the 1.76 billion shares that changed hands on Friday.

The Russell 2000 index of smaller companies gained 3.67, or 0.51%, to 727.89.

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