The Dow industrials dipped after the Federal Reserve's beige-book report showed slower growth and increased price pressures but quickly rebounded as oil dropped below $125 a barrel.
For most of the day, stocks see-sawed with oil prices. Expectations that the House would pass the Fannie Mae-Freddie Mac rescue planboosted financials.
"Oil is definitely encouraging, it may be a bullish catalyst, but we are also actually removing what I like to call the catastrophe premium," Jessica Hoversen, fixed income derivatives from MF Global, told CNBC.
Nymex crude fell below $125 a barrel after the Fed report. An earlier report showed a 1.6-million-barrel drop in crude inventories. Oil is down about 13 percent since its all-time high above $147 hit earlier this month.
The Fed reported in its beige book, so named for the color of its cover, that economic activity slowed through mid-Julyamid elevated price pressures across most of the country. The outlook for consumer spending was generally weak.
Financials got a boost from expectations that the House will approve a plan to rescue troubled mortgage-finance giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac .
Washington Mutual reported a larger-than-expected lossof $3.33 billion and increased its loan-loss provision but said it doesn't need to raise any more capital. WaMu shares advanced.
Brokerage stocks struggled but regional bank stocks continued their rally amid relief that this quarter's earnings are behind us and as traders bet that the beaten-up sector may have hit bottom.
The strongest part of the rally in financials over the past four or five sessions has been short covering, Art Cashin, director of floor operations at UBS, said on CNBC. Just look at the prior session, Cashin said, when all three major indexes closed up about 1.2 percent. The fact that they were all about the same indicates technical trading.
"That’s not necessarily good, not necessarily logical buying -- It’s a guy putting a $2 bet on a quick race," Cashin said.
Still, Cashin said, short activity is a key aspect of making a bottom. "The trouble with this one is … this isn’t a normal-looking bottom," Cashin said. "It might be a platypus bottom. It might just be something strange we’ve never seen before."
Cashin said "things look reasonably safe here" for the big guys but cautioned that regional banks aren't protected by the new short-selling rule, so panic and fear could return if rumor mongers get a couple of them in their crosshairs.
Yahoo reported its earnings fell 19 percent but the Internet portal's finance chief said the company's 2008 outlook remains intact.
"Investors braced for the worst," said Jeffrey Lindsay, analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein. "[T]hese results are poor, but relative to what people were expecting, they're not so bad."
Yahoo's results were a welcome reprieve for techs, which had been punished after Apple issued a profit warning for the current quarter and Texas Instruments missed its second-quarter target amid weak cellphone-chip sales.
Apple advanced after AT&T said the launch of the iPhone 3G was strong.
McDonald's also reported earnings that beat estimates and Pepsico said strong international sales boosted its bottom line but both stocks slipped.
Elsewhere, Pfizer said second-quarter profits more than doubled, while GlaxoSmithKline reported lower profit and said it would delay a stock buyback program.
Also, AT&T met expectations with earnings of 76 cents per share as increased wireless subscribers helped profit grow, while Boeingsaid its profit slipped due to a delay with a military contract.
Still to Come:
WEDNESDAY: House vote on Fannie/Freddie rescue; Earnings from Amazon and Pulte Home after the bell
THURSDAY: Weekly jobless claims; existing-home sales; earnings from Eli Lilly, MMM, Bristol-Myers, Dow Chemical and Xerox
FRIDAY:Durable-goods orders; consumer sentiment; new-home sales; earnings from Netflix
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