S&P 500 and Nasdaq inch higher, fiscal cliff a concern


Stocks mostly ticked higher on Monday, but persistent concerns about the upcoming debate on the fiscal cliff limited gains even after last week's steep sell-off.

Barclays cut its year-end target for the S&P 500 to 1,325, citing fiscal cliff issues.

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The S&P 500 dropped 2.4 percent last week, the worst week for the benchmark index since June. It closed below its 200-day moving average for the first time in five months, and an extended run under that level could signal further losses ahead.

Trading volume is expected to be light, with the U.S. bond market and government offices closed on Monday for the Veterans Day holiday.

Last week's weakness was partly propelled by concerns about whether there will be a timely solution to avoid the fiscal cliff, a combination of government spending cuts and tax increases set to go into effect early next year unless Congress acts to change the law before then. Though most consider it unlikely that no deal will be reached, analysts fear going over the cliff could push the economy back into recession

"Right now, all eyes are on Washington, and we're just waiting," said Matthew Keator, a partner in the Keator Group, a wealth management firm in Lenox, Massachusetts. "We're hopeful something gets done, but we've been disappointed before. We need to see something done if we're going to remain up for the year."

The S&P 500 is still up 10 percent for 2012, though recent months have eroded those gains. The Nasdaq has fallen for five straight weeks.

The Dow Jones industrial average was down 3.69 points, or 0.03 percent, at 12,811.70. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index was up 0.87 of a point, or 0.06 percent, at 1,380.72. The Nasdaq Composite Index was up 4.53 points, or 0.16 percent, at 2,909.41.

Some major acquisition news gave investors some reasons for optimism on Monday. Precision Castparts Corp offered to buy Titanium Metals Corp for $2.9 billion, while Leucadia National Corp agreed to buy investment bank Jefferies Group for $3.6 billion.

Shares of Titanium surged 42.3 percent to $16.46 while Jefferies climbed 13.5 percent to $16.19. Precision rose 5.5 percent to $180.67. In contrast, Leucadia fell 4 percent to $20.93.

"After last week, there could be some bargain opportunities out there," said Keator, who helps oversee $500 million in assets. "Especially since if there is a fiscal cliff deal, that could lead to a tremendous move on the upside."

Overseas, a report over the weekend showed China's export growth climbed to a five-month high, beating expectations and adding to recent data suggesting the country's seven straight quarters of slowing economic growth have ended.

In addition, the Greek parliament on Sunday approved an austerity budget for next year, a necessary step to unblock a new tranche of credit from the European Union and International Monetary Fund before the government runs out of cash. Still, investors remain concerned about whether the EU and IMF will agree to send the next tranche.

Apple Inc rose 0.6 percent to $550.42 after the company announced a global patent settlement with HTC Corp <2498.TW>, as well as a 10-year licensing agreement. Apple's stock has been under pressure recently, dropping more than 20 percent from its 2012 high to enter bear market territory.

Homebuilder D.R. Horton Inc reported fourth-quarter earnings that beat expectations, helped by a jump in orders. D.R. Horton's shares gained 3.1 percent to $21.23.

According to Thomson Reuters data through Friday, of the 449 companies in the S&P 500 that have reported earnings, 63.3 percent have topped expectations. But only 38.2 percent of companies have topped revenue expectations - well below the 62 percent average since 2002.

(Editing by Jan Paschal)