US stocks nearly unchanged as fiscal threat looms

Caption
FILE - In this Thursday, Nov. 8, 2012, file photo, Gregg Maloney, left, and Ronnie Howard, center, both of Barclays, direct trading on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, in New York U.S. stocks eked out the tiniest of gains on Monday Nov. 12, 2012, small comfort after worries about the fiscal cliff sent the market plunging last week. (AP Photo/Henny Ray Abrams)

U.S. stocks closed nearly unchanged Monday, after a day of uneven trading plagued by investors' fears about the approaching "fiscal cliff."

The Dow Jones industrial average finished down 0.23 point at 12,815.16. It had spent the day trading gains and losses, never rising more than 46 points or falling more than 32.

The Standard & Poor's 500 index edged up 0.15 point to 1,380. The Nasdaq composite fell 0.61 to 2,904.26.

The closing level of the Dow was revised twice after trading closed. The New York Stock Exchange had experienced a trading glitch during the day, forcing it to alter its normal procedure for determining the closing prices of some stocks.

Trading was very light. The federal government and the U.S. bond market were closed for Veterans Day, and no economic reports were released.

The fiscal cliff refers to government spending cuts and tax increases that are scheduled to kick in at the beginning of the new year, unless a divided Congress and the White House can work out a compromise before then.

Some traders thought the tentative trading action was nearly inevitable because there has been no positive or negative news about the economy or the possibility of a deal to avoid the fiscal cliff.

"Nothing good is going on," said Scott Freeze, president of Street One Financial in Huntingdon Valley, Pa. "Everything forward-looking remains dreary."

Last week, after voters returned a long-deadlocked and divided government to Washington, the Dow dropped 434 points in two days and had one of its worst weeks of the year.

Even if lawmakers work out a compromise, as they usually do, the political fight until then is sure keep investors on edge, pitching the stock market back and forth until it's resolved. Economists say the cliff could cost the economy $800 billion and 3 million jobs and would plunge the U.S. back into recession.

President Barack Obama, a Democrat, and House Speaker John Boehner, a Republican, have spoken of compromise but appear to be taking firm stances on some issues. Obama will meet with labor representatives as well as other progressive groups Tuesday. He'll hold separate meetings with the business community Wednesday.

The effect on the markets has been widespread. Fiscal cliff worries were blamed for keeping a lid on European markets and Asian markets, which closed mostly lower.

In Greece, lawmakers passed a new austerity budget, and the country's international lenders drafted a report saying it had made progress in righting its finances. Greece is hoping the other euro countries will give it another $40 billion in bailout loans. The budget and the report are crucial steps toward that goal.

Still, the new bailout isn't a sure thing: Some of the potential lenders must seek approval from their parliaments. Greece's main stock market index closed down 3.6 percent.

Freeze was among the underwhelmed. "At this point, all the Greek news is just noise," he said. "None of these bailouts really solve the underlying problem. Now if all of a sudden Spain became incredibly solvent and its unemployment rate went to 5 percent, then you'd see" a reason to buy.

Across Europe, there were other reminders that the debt crisis is far from solved. The Banking Association of Spain, a country where hundreds of thousands of borrowers have fallen behind on their mortgages, said it would curb evictions of some struggling homeowners. In Portugal, demonstrators planned protests against a scheduled visit from German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Germany helped bail out Portugal last year and insisted that the government there cut spending as a condition of getting the money, a sore point for some in Portugal.

Among U.S. stocks making big moves:

— Leucadia National announced it would buy the investment banking firm Jefferies Group. Jefferies' chief will run the combined company. Leucadia, a holding company with investments in eclectic industries including beef processing and medical products, dropped 66 cents, or 3 percent, to $21.14. Jefferies soared $2, or 14 percent, to $16.27.

— Sherwin-Williams, the paint company, jumped 5.8 percent after announcing it will buy Consorcio Comex, a privately held rival based in Mexico City. Its stock rose $8.22 to $149.06.

— Best Buy leapt after announcing it had named a new finance chief, a former executive of the upscale kitchen store Williams-Sonoma. Analysts hope the new numbers cruncher can help turn around a chain that has struggled to keep up with online competitors. Best Buy's stock rose 55 cents, or 3.6 percent, to $15.85.

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Daniel Wagner can be reached at www.twitter.com/wagnerreports.

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