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Stocks close higher; Nasdaq tops 50-day moving average

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U.S. stocks closed mildly higher Monday in low volume trade as investors readied for the first major earnings reports due Tuesday. (Tweet This)

"I think the fact the market is holding up today is pretty impressive," said Bruce Bittles, chief investment strategist at RW Baird.

"I'm a little concerned that the energy stocks, material stocks, got a little ahead of themselves," he said. He's watching to see if the S&P 500 can close above 2,040 in the coming days and add further support to the idea the stock market has bottomed.

The Nasdaq composite closed above its 50-day moving average for the first time since Aug. 17. The Dow Jones industrial average and S&P 500 closed above their 50-day moving averages last week and have remained above.

The major U.S. averages struggled to hold higher during the trading session, with the three indexes dipping in and out of negative territory in early trade.

Major averages 5-day performance

Utilities closed up 0.9 percent as the greatest advancer in the S&P, while energy fell 1.08 percent and materials closed down 0.88 percent as the only decliners. Both sectors rallied last week as the best performers in the S&P during that time.

"There's really not much going on today. It's really the calm before the earnings storm," said Peter Boockvar, chief market analyst at The Lindsey Group. "I've got my eye on commodity prices."

"The market's extremely overbought. I expect a big pause here," he said.

On Friday, the S&P 500 closed up 3.26 percent for the week, its best week for 2015. The Dow Jones industrial average closed up 3.7 percent for the week, its second-best week of the year so far.

Read MoreWall Street readies for earnings, more volatility

Oil settled down $2.53, or 5.10 percent, at $47.10 a barrel, giving back more than half of last week's rally of nearly 9 percent. Monday's decline was the worst daily decline since Sept. 1. Brent also declined to hold just above $50 a barrel.

Chevron and IBM were the greatest weights on the Dow Jones industrial average.

"You've got a relatively catalyst-free (session) and I think we'll take our cues from the commodity market," said Art Hogan, chief market strategist at Wunderlich Securities.

Read MoreGoldman Sachs: What to expect from commodities next

Trade volume was one of the lightest for 2015 due to Columbus Day. The U.S. bond market was closed Monday for the holiday.

The U.S. dollar traded mildly lower against major world currencies, with the euro above $1.13 and the yen at 120.00 yen against the greenback.

"I think what we're seeing is a continuation of some of the trends from last week," said David Kelly, chief global strategist at JPMorgan Funds. "A sense of calm with China a little more stable."

In Asia, the Shanghai Composite surged more than 3 percent and the Hang Seng closed up 1.2 percent. Japanese stock markets were closed for a holiday. European stocks closed mixed, under some pressure from declines in oil prices.

"I wouldn't put too much into this (U.S. trading session) because it's holiday mode trading," said Peter Cardillo, chief market economist at Rockwell Global Capital. "It's all about earnings tomorrow."

JPMorgan Chase is scheduled to report after the close Tuesday, beginning a heavy week of earnings reports from financials, which includes Bank of America and Wells Fargo on Wednesday, and Citigroup and Goldman Sachs on Thursday.

Read MoreThese banks could surprise on earnings: Bove

Earnings estimates for the financial sector are down to growth of 3.0 percent versus expectations of 6.1 percent growth two weeks ago, according to S&P Capital IQ.

"It's been super slow for us. Real quiet," said Phil Quartuccio, CEO of Illustro Trading. "I think the bigger news today was Dell, which should rattle the tech industry a little bit. I think Dell's making a really bold move with the number they're paying."

Read MoreEarly movers: EMC, TWTR, F, BUD, JPM, GE, BA, LUV & more

Dell announced a $67 billion cash and stock deal with MSD Partners and Silver Lake to buy cloud computing firm EMC.

Eli Lilly fell about 8 percent on news the of its closely watched cholesterol treatment after the drug proved ineffective. Shares of Merck, which is developing a similar medicine, also declined.

Investors also eyed more comments from Federal Reserve speakers. No major economic data was expected.

"I think typically what people are looking for are some hints on when they might raise rates. They keep saying they want to raise this year. I think December is still certainly a possibility," said Randy Frederick, managing director of trading and derivatives at Charles Schwab.

Over the weekend, Federal Reserve Vice Chairman Stanley Fischer said U.S. Federal Reserve policymakers are still likely to raise interest rates this year but that is "an expectation, not a commitment," and could change if the global economy pushes the U.S. economy further off course.

On Monday, the Atlanta Fed's Dennis Lockhart said in a Reuters report there could be sufficient economic data for the Fed to consider a rate hike at their meeting later in October but

Chicago Fed President Charles Evans reiterated in prepared remarks his view that rate increases should be much more gradual than what most U.S. central bankers anticipate.

Read MoreFed losing credibility: BlackRock's Fisher

Fed board member Lael Brainard was scheduled to speak later on Monday. On Tuesday, St. Louis Fed President James Bullard is due to present remarks, while the New York Fed's William Dudley speaks Thursday.

The Fed's September meeting minutes released this past Thursday indicated policymakers were further from raising rates last month than many thought, as Federal Open Market Committee members were concerned about reaching their inflation target and the impact of a global economic slowdown. Fed speakers have generally maintained the central bank could still raise rates this year.

Major U.S. Indexes

The Dow Jones Industrial Average closed up 47.37 points, or 0.28 percent, at 17,131.86, with UnitedHealth leading advancers and Caterpillar the greatest decliner.

The closed up 2.57 points, or 0.13 percent, at 2,017.46, with utilities leading eight sectors higher and energy and materials the only decliners.

The Nasdaq closed up 8.17 points, or 0.17 percent, at 4,838.64. Apple closed down 0.48 percent.The iShares Nasdaq Biotechnology ETF (IBB) eked out a gain of 0.03 percent.

The CBOE Volatility Index (VIX), widely considered the best gauge of fear in the market, held just above 16.

About eight stocks advanced for every seven decliners on the New York Stock Exchange, with an exchange volume of 716 million and a composite volume of nearly 2.9 billion in the close.

Gold futures settled up $8.60 at $1,164.50 an ounce.

Reuters contributed to this report.

On tap this week:


4:30 pm: Fed board member Lael Brainard speaks


Earnings: Johnson & Johnson, Intel, JPMorgan Chase, CSX

8:00 am: St. Louis Fed President James Bullard speaks


Earnings: Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Netflix, Delta Air Lines, BlackRock, ASML Holding, PNC Financial Services

7:00 am: Mortgage applications

8:30 am: Produce price index

8:30 am: Retail sales

10:00 am: Business inventories

2:00 pm: Fed's Beige Book


Earnings: Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, UnitedHealth, US Bancorp, Schlumberger, Mattel, Advanced Micro Devices, Philip Morris, BB&T, Blackstone, Charles Schwab, WD-40

8:30 am: Consumer price index

8:30 am: Jobless claims

8:30 am: Empire State manufacturing survey

10:00 am: Philadelphia Fed business outlook survey

10:30 am: Natural gas inventories

10:30 am: New York Fed President William Dudley speaks

11:00 am: Oil inventories


Earnings: GE, Honeywell, Comerica, Kansas City Southern, SunTrust

9:15 am: Industrial production

10:00 am: JOLTS

10:00 am: Consumer sentiment

10:00 am: Atlanta Fed business inflation expectations

1:00 pm: Oil rig count

4:00 pm: Treasury International Capital

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Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated when the Treasury's monthly budget statement was due. It is scheduled for release Thursday.