The Dow and the S&P 500 edged lower in light trading on Monday, a day before the U.S. presidential election as traders were reluctant to take positions until the winner of the close race is known.
Democratic President Barack Obama and his challenger, Republican Mitt Romney, dashed through a handful of swing states, stumping for votes on the last day of the campaign for the White House.
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Investors were also monitoring congressional races to gauge how the United States will deal with the $600 billion in spending cuts and tax hikes that could kick in next year and severely damage the economy.
On election eve, traders sat tight before placing bets on sectors likely to benefit under the election's victor.
"Given this huge event is so close, now it just makes sense to wait," said Jack Ablin, chief investment officer of Harris Private Bank in Chicago.
"I guess, academically, you could convince yourself a president doesn't generally doesn't have that much influence over the economy near-term, but the fact remains, they could impact the market."
Leading world economies pressed the United States on Sunday to act decisively to avert the fiscal cliff, calling it the biggest short-term threat to global growth.
The market's reaction was muted to data showing the pace of growth in the U.S. services sector slowed modestly in October. Data from the Institute for Supply Management showed new orders slipped, but employment improved.
Market participants may also have to deal with interpreting economic data that could soon start to show the impact of Hurricane Sandy on the economy after battering the U.S. Northeast last week.
The S&P utilities index , down 1.7 percent, was the worst performing of the 10 major S&P 500 sectors a week after Sandy wreaked havoc on New York City and the surrounding area. Close to 2 million people still have no power as cold weather sets in. On Sunday, 30,000 to 40,000 people in New York City were in need of shelter.
The utilities index is down 2.6 percent since trading reopened on October 31.
The sector also felt the weight of a 2.6 percent drop in Southern Co shares to $44.56 after Southern, which is the No.2 U.S. power company when ranked by market value, posted third-quarter earnings.
The Dow Jones industrial average dropped 10.48 points, or 0.08 percent, to 13,082.68. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index shed 1.02 points, or 0.07 percent, to 1,413.18. The Nasdaq Composite Index added 4.50 points, or 0.15 percent, to 2,986.61.
Apple Inc rose 0.4 percent to $579.15 to help lift the Nasdaq after the company said it had sold 3 million of its new iPads in the first three days.
Transocean Ltd , which operates the world's largest offshore oil drilling fleet, reported a higher-than-expected adjusted profit for the third quarter. Its stock gained 4.7 percent at $48.23.
Stifel Financial Corp shares gained 1.7 percent to $32.45. Shares of KBW Inc climbed 7.2 percent to $17.47 after Stifel said it would buy the smaller rival in a cash-and-stock deal valued at about $575 million to form an investment bank focused on the financial services industry.
BioMarin Pharmaceutical Inc surged 29.5 percent to $48.43 after the company said a late-stage trial of its experimental genetic disorder drug met the main goal of improving patients' walking ability when administered weekly. The rally in BioMarin's shares helped push the Nasdaq biotech index up 1.4 percent.
A private survey of China's growing services sector showed the services index slipped in October, with weaker-than-expected new orders injecting a note of caution after three previous PMI surveys for October showed the world's second-largest economy regaining momentum.
The euro zone's debt crisis also remained an issue for investors, as a senior European Union official said a deal to keep near-bankrupt Greece afloat by providing more bailout money is unlikely to be struck next week when euro-zone finance ministers meet in Brussels.
(Reporting by Chuck Mikolajczak; Editing by Jan Paschal)