Stocks barely budged on Monday, with the S&P 500 and Nasdaq trimming early gains as disappointing U.S. factory numbers dented optimism spurred by positive data on China's economy.
Output by China's factories grew in November for the first time in more than a year, data showed. But that encouraging signal about the health of the world's second-largest economy was offset by a surprising contraction in U.S. manufacturing, which fell in November to its lowest level in more than three years, according to the Institute for Supply Management.
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The market's reaction to the ISM data was somewhat muted, however, as concerns about budget dealings in Washington on the "fiscal cliff" remain the primary focus of investors. Political haggling continues over how to deal with large automatic spending cuts and tax hikes scheduled to kick in next year that could tip the U.S. economy back into recession.
"At this point, all you can say about the data is they are discounting it," said Paul Mendelsohn, chief investment strategist at Windham Financial Services in Charlotte, Vermont.
"So barring some catastrophe here in terms of the fiscal cliff, we look pretty stable."
Among other factors serving to offset the ISM report were two developments in the euro zone: Spain formally requested the disbursement of more than $50 billion of European funds to recapitalize its crippled banking sector, while Greece said it would spend 10 billion euros ($13 billion) to buy back bonds in a bid to reduce its ballooning debt.
The PHLX Europe sector index advanced 0.6 percent.
"The general feeling underneath here is things are improving - Europe appears to be improving, at least politically getting their act together," Mendelsohn said.
The Dow Jones industrial average shed 10.45 points, or 0.08 percent, to 13,015.13. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index inched up just 0.62 of a point, or 0.04 pct to 1,417.80. The Nasdaq Composite Index added 3.68 points, or 0.12 percent, to 3,013.92.
The S&P 500 briefly moved above its 50-day moving average at about 1,420, a level that the index has been below since October 22, and now serving as a key resistance point for equities.
U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner pushed Republicans on Sunday to offer specific ideas to cut the deficit and predicted that they would agree to raise tax rates on the rich to obtain a year-end deal to avoid the fiscal cliff.
Dell shares rose 5.8 percent to $10.19 as one of the biggest percentage gainers in both the S&P 500 and Nasdaq 100 after Goldman Sachs upgraded its view on the stock to "buy" from "sell."
Singapore Airlines said it was in talks with interested parties to sell its 49 percent stake in British carrier Virgin Atlantic, with sources saying that Delta Air Lines was among the potential suitors. Delta shares fell 1.8 percent to $9.82.
(Reporting by Chuck Mikolajczak; Editing by Kenneth Barry and Jan Paschal)