NEW YORK – Stocks were little changed in choppy trading on Thursday as investors found little reason to buy following weak results from Wal-Mart Stores Inc and rising tensions in the Middle East.
After stock index futures rose before the market opened, Wall Street dipped temporarily soon after the open on data from the Philadelphia Federal Reserve Bank that showed business activity in mid-Atlantic states unexpectedly contracted.
The recent trend has been for stocks to struggle to hold onto even slight gains, as on Wednesday when they opened higher but slumped at midday and ended down more than 1 percent.
"There's nothing that suggests the economy is poised to free-fall or rally, and with all the uncertainty out there people are choosing to just take their 2012 gains now rather than December," said John Norris, managing director of wealth management with Oakworth Capital Bank in Birmingham, Alabama.
Stil, the S&P 500 is up 8.2 percent so far this year, though at its 2012 peak the benchmark index was up more than 17 percent.
Wal-Mart fell 3.8 percent to $68.60 after reporting third-quarter revenue that missed expectations. The company said economic conditions pressured customers' spending. Target Corp rose 1.1 percent to $62.08 after it reported a profit that beat expectations.
Weekly jobless claims spiked in the latest week, hurt by the impact of superstorm Sandy, though consumer prices came in as expected with a 0.1 percent increase. Claims totaled 439,000, over expectations of 375,000.
The Philly Fed said its business activity index slumped to -10.7 from 5.7 the month before, a much steeper fall than had been expected. The data was affected by disruption from superstorm Sandy, which slammed the U.S. Northeast in late October.
The Dow Jones industrial average was up 11.56 points, or 0.09 percent, at 12,582.51. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index was up 1.88 points, or 0.14 percent, at 1,357.37. The Nasdaq Composite Index was down 0.97 point, or 0.03 percent, at 2,845.84.
Both the Dow and Nasdaq ended at their lowest levels since late June on Wednesday, while the S&P 500 is down about 5 percent since election night. Wednesday marked the benchmark index's lowest close since July 25.
Investors may seek bargains at these levels, but many analysts say strong gains may be hard to come by until at least one of several global macroeconomic headwinds go away.
NetApp Inc surged 9.7 percent to $29.81 a day after reporting adjusted second-quarter earnings that beat expectations and forecasting a strong current quarter.
Overseas, Israel launched a major offensive against Palestinian militants in Gaza, killing the military commander of Hamas in an air strike and threatening an invasion of the enclave. Egypt said it recalled its ambassador from Israel in response.
Energy shares may be affected by the tensions in the Middle East, as any disruption in crude supplies could spark a jump in oil prices. Brent crude rose 1 percent while oilfield services company Halliburton Co rose 1.6 percent to $30.43.
President Barack Obama Wednesday reiterated his position that marginal tax rates would have to rise to tackle U.S. deficits. Taxes on capital gains and dividends could rise as part of the negotiations, pushing investors to sell this year and pay lower taxes on their gains.
A regional gauge of manufacturing in New York state slowed for a fourth straight month in November but was stronger than expected.
(Editing by Kenneth Barry)