The S&P 500 index finished unchanged on Wednesday as investors were reluctant to make big bets while they waited for the outcomes of major talks involving Greece and Ukraine, but Apple helped boost the Nasdaq after an activist investor's bullish comments.
Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis began tense talks with euro zone finance ministers on Wednesday after his new leftist-led government won a parliamentary confidence vote refusing extend an international bailout. International Monetary Fund Chief Christine Lagarde said going into the meeting that the process would likely take time.
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"The Greek situation is the one that's on the front burner right now. It's keeping money on the sidelines," said Bucky Hellwig, senior vice president at BB&T Wealth Management in Birmingham, Alabama.
Adding to the market's uncertainty, the leaders of France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine began peace talks in Belarus, while in Ukraine pro-Moscow separatists tightened the pressure on Kiev by launching some of the war's worst fighting.
The Nasdaq <.IXIC> was boosted late in a lackluster session by a 2.3 percent gain in Apple Inc <AAPL.O> shares after activist investor Carl Icahn issued a letter saying the iPhone maker should be valued at $216. Apple closed at $124.88.
The Dow Jones industrial average <.DJI> fell 6.62 points, or 0.04 percent, to 17,862.14, the S&P 500 <.SPX> lost 0.06 points, or -0 percent, to 2,068.53 and the Nasdaq Composite <.IXIC> added 13.54 points, or 0.28 percent, to 4,801.18.
The utilities sector <.SPLRCU> was the worst performer as investors moved out of the high-yielding stocks ahead of an expected Federal Reserve interest rate hike later this year. The index closed down 2.4 percent and has fallen almost 8 percent since its peak on Jan. 28.
PepsiCo <PEP.N> finished up 2.5 percent after the soft drinks maker reported a better-than-expected quarterly profit and announced share buyback plans.
Wal-Mart <WMT.N> shares fell 1,1 percent and weighed on the Dow Jones Industrial Average <.DJI> after it said it would make investments to expand in Canada.
Despite some high-profile earnings misses from big multinational companies, largely as a result of dollar strength, Thomson Reuters data through Wednesday morning showed 72.4 percent of the 352 S&P 500 components that have reported results topped expectations, above the 69 percent beat rate in the past four quarters. The earnings growth rate for the quarter stands at 6.7 percent.
About 6.4 billion shares changed hands on U.S. exchanges, below the 7 billion average for the last five sessions, according to BATS Global Markets.
Declining issues outnumbered advancing ones on the NYSE by 1,679 to 1,400, for a 1.20-to-1 ratio; on the Nasdaq, 1,474 issues fell and 1,209 advanced, for a 1.22-to-1 ratio favoring decliners.
The S&P 500 posted 39 new 52-week highs and 1 new low; the Nasdaq Composite recorded 81 new highs and 50 new lows.
(By Sinead Carew; Additional reporting by Chuck Mikolajczak; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama, Nick Zieminski and Meredith Mazzilli)