Stocks Hit by Fiscal Cliff Worries

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The markets took a fall in choppy action after one of the highest ranking Democratic lawmakers told reporters 'little progress' had been made in U.S. budget negotiations.

Today's Markets

As of 3:30 p.m. ET, the Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 16.9 points, or 0.13%, to 12950, the S&P 500 rose 0.12 point, or 0.01%, to 1406 and the Nasdaq Composite gained 2.1 points, or 0.07%, to 2979.

Every sector besides the defensive utilities segment was recently in the red. The worst performers were energy, financial and telecommunications stocks.

Fiscal Worries Flare Up

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid expressed his frustration with stalled debt talks in Congress, saying "little progress" had been made in negotiations. The markets have been paying close attention to the debt talks on Capitol Hill because the so-called fiscal cliff is looming just weeks away. Economists across the board say that if Congress can't craft a deal that averts the painful package of spending cuts and tax hikes, the already fragile economy will take a beating.

Mixed News from Europe

The European Union, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund negotiated for weeks in a bid to agree on a Greek debt deal. An agreement finally came late Monday night. The group agreed to several measures to help Greece make its fiscal targets in coming decades. The actions included lowering the interest rate the country needs to pay on its loans, raising the debt-to-GDP target to 124% by 2020 from 120% and extending the maturity on certain loans. Now, the international lenders say they will be able to release the roughly $56.7 billion aid tranche Greece needs to avoid a default.

"Taken together, these measures will help to bring back Greece’s debt ratio to a sustainable path and facilitate a gradual return to market financing," IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde said in a statement.

However, balancing out that news was a more subdued economic forecast from the OECD. The group expects the world economy to grow at an annual pace of 2.9% this year and then 3.4% in 2013. That compares to a previous estimate of 3.4% and 4.2%, respectively.

"The global economy is expected to make a hesitant and uneven recovery over the coming two years," the group said in a statement accompanying the report. "Decisive policy action is needed to ensure that stalemate over fiscal policy in the United States and continuing euro area instability do not plunge the world back into recession."

Economic Reports Fail to Impress

Economists also mulled several important economic reports.

Orders for long-lasting goods remained flat in October from September. They were expected to fall 0.6%. Excluding the transportation segment, orders were up 1.5%. Economists were expecting a 0.5% drop.

Home prices in 20 major U.S. metropolitan areas climbed 0.3% in September from August on a non-seasonally adjusted basis, according to the closely-watched S&P/Case-Shiller report. Economists expected a slightly larger increase of 0.5%. Prices were up 3% from the year prior.

The housing market has been showing increasing signs of recovery in recent months, but many economists expected the gains to be choppy.

The Conference Board's gauge of consumer confidence rose in November to 73.7 from 73.1 in October, topping estimates of 73 and marking the highest level since February 2008. The important holiday shopping season is just kicking off, and economists will be looking to see how various factors, including fiscal uncertainty, are affecting consumer confidence.

In corporate news, ConAgra Foods (NYSE:CAG) unveiled plans to buy Ralcorp (NYSE:RAH), the largest U.S. private label food manufacturer, for $90 per share in cash. The transaction that is valued at $6.8 billion is expected to close in March 2013.

In commodities markets, oil futures climbed mildly. The benchmark contract fell 56 cents, or 0.64%, to $87.18 a barrel. Wholesale New York Harbor gasoline rose 0.21% to $2.732 a gallon.

Gold slipped $7.30, or 0.42%, to $1,742 a troy ounce.

Foreign Markets

The Euro Stoxx 50 rose 0.04% to 2543, the English FTSE 100 gained 0.22% to 5800 and the German DAX climbed 0.55% to 7332.

In Asia, the Japanese Nikkei 225 edged up by 0.37% to 9423 and the Chinese Hang Seng ticked lower by 0.08% to 21844.