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US Stocks Battle Back, Finish Flat

U.S. stocks managed a largely flat close Wednesday -- despite disappointing holiday retail news -- as the battered financial sector and energy companies gave a boost to the broader market.

All three major U.S. indexes barely finished positive on a day when a holiday hangover seemed to have infected the market.

The Dow Jones industrial average was up 2.36 points, or 0.02 percent, at 13,551.69. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index was up 1.21 points, or 0.08 percent, at 1,497.66. The Nasdaq Composite Index rose 10.91 points, or 0.40 percent, at 2,724.41.

The S&P moved off its lows when battered bond insurers MBIA and Ambac recovered some of the losses they had posted in recent weeks. Investment banker Bear Stearns also showed gains after British financier increased his stake in the firm.

Oil rose above $96 a barrel before backing off, ahead of a government report expected to show US crude inventories fell for a sixth straight week. Exxon Mobil led energy stocks to the upside, with gains posted also by ConocoPhillips and Total SA.

On the downside, shares dipped substantially for retailers after indications that theywere going to suffer this year.

Target issued a Christmas Eve warning after the Monday bell that its same-store sales were likely to miss estimates, and other retailers could follow suit. Target shares dropped, as did those at numerous other retailers.

On Christmas Day, a report by MasterCard Advisors' SpendingPulse showed retail sales rose 3.6 percent in the holiday season, at the lower end of expectations, helped by a late-season spending surge on some items.

The retail slump added up to a down day for Wall Street, though the news wasn't expected to have much of a spillover effect as the market moves forward.

"I don't think retail is the signature of the market. It's not like, as retail goes the market goes," said Nadav Baum, managing director of investments for BPU Investment Management. "It's not like the financials, it's not like the tech world.

"If you take a look at bigger money managers, hedge funds, the people who roil the markets, they have very small pieces of retail."

The Nasdaq shrugged off the shopping troubles, with tech retailers showing gains and the index overall being powered by surges in Apple and Google, which gained despite a court setback in a patent fight.

Not all financials had a good day. Citigroup and American International Group were among the biggest drags on the Dow.

Adding to the market woes was a report showing that prices of existing single-family homes recorded their biggest annual drop in October, suggesting the housing slump is far from over. The Dow Jones U.S. Home Construction Index tumbled 1.1 percent after the housing numbers were released.

The numbers meant bad news for battered home builders, whose shares were mostly lower.

In other market news, Berkshire Hathaway, Warren Buffett's investment company, said it will pay $4.5 billionfor 60 percent of Marmon Holdings, a private company of more than 125 manufacturing and service businesses.

In foreign exchange, the yen hovered near a seven-week low against the dollar as signs of a recovery in risk appetite were seen supporting demand for carry trades. Treasurys erased earlier losses as traders covered short positions before a $22 billion two-year Treasury note auction.