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Stocks Remain Mixed; Energy, Financials Rise

Stocks remained mixed in mid-afternoon trading, the last trading day of the quarter. Energy, financials and materials were the sector leaders.

The Dowwas down about 10 points, led by Boeing . Cisco and Microsoft .

The Nasdaqpushed into positive territory while the S&P 500 was flat.

Bank stocks such asBank of Americaand JPMorgan were up as loan losses showed signs of stabiliziationand expectations that an eventual rise in interest rates would help profits.

"It is going to be inevitable that we’re going to see higher rates this year," said Todd Schoenberger, managing director at LandColt Trading. "One thing about financials is that they make money when rates are higher. So there is the feeling that if rates do start increasing, then they’ll have a positive impact on their bottomline."

Stocks had opened lower after ADP said employers slashed 23,000 jobsfrom payrolls in March, which came as a surprise to economists, who had expected to 50,000 jobs were added last month.

The ADP report is closely watched ahead of the government's jobs report on Friday.

"This was a shocker that should raise some questions about Friday’s employment report," Joel Naroff of Naroff Economic Advisors, said of the ADP report. He still expects to see an average of 50,000 to 75,000 jobs added per month this year, but cautioned that it may not accelerate.

"We could see a short term pop in private sector job growth in the spring and summer similar to the swing we have seen in inventories," Naroff said. "Firms that have needed workers but refused to hire will start doing that. But once they add those workers, they may not be in any mood to hire any more."

Stocks added to their losses after a report showed Midwest manufacturing activity is sluggish. The Chicago Purchasing Manager's Index dropped to 58.5 in a March reading from 62.6 in February. New orders were down but production ramped up.

Stocks pared their losses somewhat after a subsequent report showed nationwide factory orders rose 0.6 percent in February, double the expected increase.

On the commodities front, oil prices traded above $83 a barrel after official U.S. inventory data showed a slight but unexpected build in crude stocks. The dollar retreated from a three-month highagainst the yen and fell against the euro while gold prices hit their highest level in more than a weekat almost $1,115 an ounce.

The major averages are about to wrap up their second consecutive month of gains and their fourth consecutive quarter of advances. The Dow and the S&P 500 are also likely to register their best first quarters in a decade.

But investors need to adjust their expectations, Pimco's Bill Gross said on CNBC this morning.

"[I]nstead of 8 to 10 percent in terms of return for risk assets, you should expect 4 to 6 percent," Gross said. "Reduce your expectations."

In Europe, Moody's downgraded its credit rating on five Greek banks, including National Bank of Greece, EFG Eurobank Ergasias, Alpha Bank, Piraeus Bank and Emporiki Bank.

This comes amid news that Greece will issue a U.S. dollar-denominated bondin late April or early May.

Oil drillers such as Diamond Offshore Drilling , Transocean and Noble saw a boost after President Obama announced plans for an expansion of offshore oil and gas drillingin an effort to win Republican support for new laws to fight climate change.

Chevron shares rose after the oil giant won a three-year old arbitration fight in Ecuador.

Honeywell shares rose more than 1 percent after the company, which makes everything from air purifiers to plane-navigation systems, raised its first-quarter profit outlook. Bloggingstocks said expect Honeywell, which also makes thermostats, to take off as it capitalizes on homeowners' desire to maximize the energy efficiency of their homes.

Rite Aid shares tumbled after the drugstore reported a worse-than-expected loss after a mild cold and flu season and projected its full-year loss would widen as well.

Dollar stores continued to do well: Dollar General beat earnings expectations and projected a 4-to-6-percent increase in same-store sales this year.

In IPO news, Meru Networks and SS&C shares rose sharply in their market debut, while Scorpio Tankers fell.

And, the IPO of Primerica, the door-to-door insurance unit of Citigroup, is expected to price tonight. The company set the expected range between $12 and $14. The move is expected to boost Citigroup .

After the bell today, the latest quarter numbers from Blackberry maker Research In Motion and Micron Technology will be released.

In auto news, Ford shares were lower despite news that the no. 2 auto maker would be able to speed up its debt repayment, according to CEO Alan Mullaly. Earlier, the firm said it is planning an electric car of its own, using Microsoft technology.

AutoNation shares tumbled after the auto dealership group announced expectations for a first-quarter earnings increase in line with Wall Street forecasts. The company also said it plans to amend and extend a credit facility and issue unsecured notes to fund an offer to buy back some debt.

Auto makers are slated to release March sales numbers on Thursday.

AMR's and JetBlue Airways jumped after the airline firms agreed to begin a partnership allowing JetBlue passengers with one way tickets to connect to American Airline's international flights from New York and Boston.

Baker Hughes was also in the news, as it finalizes an agreement with the Department of Justice that will allow its planned takeover of rival BJ Services to proceed.

Blockbuster shares rose despite the news that billionaire investor Carl Icahn slashed his stake in the company, selling more than 13 million shares.

Still to Come:

WEDNESDAY: Fed ends mortgage-buyback, TALF programs; Fed's Lockhart speaks; Feinberg speaks; Earnings from Research In Motion
THURSDAY: March auto sales; Challenger job-cuts report; weekly jobless claims; construction spending; ISM manufacturing index
FRIDAY: March jobs report; Stock market closed in observance of Good Friday; Bond market closes at noon

Send comments to cindy.perman@nbcuni.com.