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Stocks End Mixed Ahead of Earnings, Fed News

Stocks ended mixed in a quiet session with techs offering one of the few bright spots ahead a week filled with earnings and economic news, including the Federal Reserve's latest views on monetary policy.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 26.11 points, or 0.2 percent, to close at 12,479.88, after rallying last week on earnings news.

Among Dow components, DuPont , Hewlett-Packard and Kraft fell, while Intel and Pfizer rose.

The S&P 500 fell 2.13 points, or 0.16 percent, to close at 1,335.25, while the tech-heavy Nasdaq rose 5.72 points, or 0.2 percent, to close at 2,825.88. The CBOE Volatility Index, widely considered the best gauge of fear in the market,rose to nearly 16.

Among the key S&P 500 sectors materials and energy fell, while technology and health gained.

Market participants this week are focused on earnings reports from several Dow components as well as key players in the consumer products, industrials, and energy sectors.

So far, earnings have been outstanding, according to Doug Cote, chief market strategist at ING Investment Management.

"This is the 7th consecutive quarter where we have far surpassed expectations," Cote said. "We think it’ll continue for several more quarters at least," he added.

Some of the best results are coming from the tech companies, which have reported a 33 percent growth in earnings, and a 27 percent increase in sales, Cote said.

And the fact that 55 percent of tech sales are from foreign countries will be a continuing catalyst to growth, he said.

"We are in a synchronized global economic expansion, and it's favoring U.S. corporations," Cote said.

Netflix is scheduled to report after the bell, but the week really begins in earnest on Tuesday with results from Coca-Cola,Ford,3M and Amazon.com, in addition to several others.

The other major focus is the Federal Reserve's policy meeting Tuesday and Wednesday, followed by an unprecedented news conference with Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke. Investors expect to learn more about the Fed's plans regarding the end of its $600 billion bond buying program known as quantitative easing.

"The thing that matters this week is what the Fed is going to do," says Brian Battle, vice president of trading at Performance Trust Capital Partners.

If the Fed ends quantitative easing, "we'll find out if the economy can stand on its own two feet," Battle said. The problem is market participants have very different views of how the markets and economy will respond once the Fed's easing program has ended, he added, as some expect interest rates will spike, while others expect rates will fall.

That's why nobody wants to commit to the market one way or another at this point, Battle said.

The fact the market is rather lackluster today is not much of a surprise. According to Schaeffer's Investment Research, the day after Easter has been positive for the market only 39 percent of the time, and "averages a significantly negative return," Rocky White, senior quantitative analyst at Schaeffer's said in a weekly note to clients.

Still, the week and month after Easter tend to be bullish, White wrote. "According to this historical pattern, if you want to buy this market after the Easter holiday, then you'll want to wait until Tuesday to get in," he said.

Gold continued to trade at record highs, settling up 0.36 percent at $1,508.60 while silver hit a historic high of $49.79 an ounce before parking gains to settle at $47.15. The dollar continued to weaken against a basket of currencies, although it rose briefly early in the session.

Oil prices fell along with the dollar in choppy trading. London Brent crude fell slightly to below $124 a barrel, while U.S. light crude fell only 0.01 percent to close at $112.28.

In merger and acquisition news, Barrick Gold announced an agreement to buy Equinox Mineralsfor about $7.3 billion in cash. Equinox jumped more than 10 percent.

Among other gold miners, Newmont Mining slipped after CIBC cut its price target on the firm to $73 from $80. However, RBC raised its price target to $67 from $62.

NYSE Euronext said it has found savings of more than a third more than initially thought in the proposed $9.8 billion merger with Deutsche Boerse.

And on Friday, Tenet Healthcarerejected a sweetened offer from from Community Health Systems, saying the price was too low to be in the best interest of shareholders.

A Coast Guard report said safety lapses by Transoceancontributed to the explosion of the Deep Water Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico a year ago, causing the deaths of 11 workers and the worst oil spill in the history.

Boeing fell after news U.S. investigators are looking at a manufacturing problem at the firm's plant 15 years agoas the source for a tear in a Southwest Airlines plane, according to the Wall Street Journal.

General Electric fell slightly despite an upgrade by Sterne Agee to "buy" from "neutral." GE is a minority shareholder in CNBC's parent, NBC Universal. Nomura, meanwhile, raised GE's price target to $24 a share from $23.

Johnson & Johnson , however, rose slightly after an upgrade by Wells Fargo to "outperform." The brokerage cited promising drug launches for the company that are expected in the second half of the year.

In the day's earnings news, Kimberly-Clark dropped after the Kleenex maker posted disappointing resultsand said rising costs for pulp are expected to hurt profitability in the months ahead.

International Game Technology shot to the top of the S&P 500 after the slot-machine maker reported unexpectedly strong profits for the fiscal second quarter. S&P Equity raised its price target on the firm to $18 from $15 and lifted its rating to "hold" from "sell."

Sohu.com shares soared after the Chinese Internet portal said its profit rose 34 percent, thanks to a jump in online game and brand advertising revenue.

Johnson Controls also slipped, although the automotive interior manufacturer delivered record sales and earnings in all its business segments.

Of S&P 500 companies that have reported results so far, 75 percent beat analysts' expectations. That is just above the average over the past four quarters but well above the average of 62 percent since 1994, according to Thomson Reuters data.

Meanwhile, Standard & Poor's lowered its ratings outlook on six Japanese automakers and suppliers including Toyota , Honda and Nissan to "negative" from "stable", saying that the firms are likely to experience deteriorated operating and financial performance following the earthquake. However, the Japanese automakers were still trading higher.

In addition, GM is likely to top Toyota to claim the title of the world's biggest automaker this year.

Nintendo announced it will launch a successor to its popular Wii game consolein 2012. Although the tech giant didn't specify what the new version will do, they said it plans to demonstrate a playable model of the console at the Los Angeles Electronic Entertainment Expo in June.

On the economic front, new home sales in Marchrose 11.1 percent to a seasonally adjusted rate of 300,000, slightly better than expected, and a reversal after three months of declines, the Commerce Department reported. The pace of new home sales remains far below a healthy pace, however.

Shares of homebuilders were mostly higher including KBHome , DRHorton and Lennar .

Volume on the consolidated tape of the New York Stock Exchange was 2.8 billion shares, the lowest volume day of the year. Only 698 million traded hands on the NYSE floor. The average daily consolidated volume so far this year, excluding today, is 4.37 billion, while average daily volume has fallen to 3.96 for the month of April.

Meanwhile, a researcher at the Chinese central bank warned that China must watch out for yields rising on U.S.Treasurys, given the U.S.'s struggles with taming its deficit.

Asian stocks finished mixed in thin post-Easter trading while markets in Europe, Australia and Hong Kong closed for Easter Monday.

On Tap This Week:

MONDAY: Earnings from Netflix.
TUESDAY: Consumer confidence; earnings before-the-bell from Coca-Cola, Ford, 3M, UPS, Coach, Cummins, Delta Air Lines, U.S. Steel and Valero, and after-the-bell from Amazon.com, Broadcom, Dreamworks, and Western Union.
WEDNESDAY: Durable goods, oil inventories; earnings before-the-bell from Boeing, BP, ConocoPhillips, Barrick Gold, Corning, Credit Suisse, General Dynamics, Northrop Grumman, and after-the-bell from eBay, Starbucks, Allstate, Baidu, Citrix, Flowserve, and Norfolk Southern.
THURSDAY: GDP, jobless claims, pending home sales; earning before-the-bell from AstraZeneca, Deutsche Bank, Exxon Mobil, PepsiCo, P&G, Royal Dutch Shell, Sanofi-Aventis, Bristol Myers, Discovery Communications, Dow Chemical, Medco Health, Motorola Solutions, Occidental Petroleum, Pulte Group, Raytheon, Sprint Nextel, Starwood, Thomson Reuters, Time Warner Cable, and Viacom, and after-the-bell from Microsoft, Cliffs Natural Resources, and Motorola Mobility.
FRIDAY: Personal income, personal spending, Chicago PMI, Thomson Reuters/University of Michigan consumer sentiment; earnings before-the-bell from Caterpillar, Chevron, Merck, DR Horton, Pitney Bowes, and Weyerhaeuser.

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