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Stocks close flat as geopolitical tensions remain; energy leads

U.S. equities closed fractionally higher on Monday amid geopolitical tensions while investors looked ahead to the start of earnings season.

The Dow Jones industrial average gained less than 10 points, with Caterpillar contributing the most gains.

Quincy Krosby, market strategist at Prudential Financial, said trading volumes may be low this week given the Easter holiday on Sunday. "Low volumes tend to skew market moves," she said. But "I think it would be healthy for the market to finish flat this week given the events in Syria."

The S&P 500 closed about 0.1 percent, with energy rising more than 0.75 percent to lead advancers. Energy stocks received a boost from oil, which rose 1.61 percent to settle at $53.08 per barrel after Libya's largest oilfield was shut down.

Oil prices have rebounded more than 9 percent over the past month. Chris Bertelsen, CIO at Aviance Capital Management, said he expects oil to remain around $50 in the near-term. "The Saudis think of their own interests, and with the Saudi Aramco IPO coming, it benefits them to have oil north of $50," he said. Bertelsen added he sees oil hovering below $50 after the IPO.

The Nasdaq composite advanced 0.1 percent higher. The three major indexes traded slightly lower earlier in the session.

"Until we get into earnings season, I don't think we're going to do much of anything. I think we're just stuck in the middle of a range," said Peter Cardillo, chief market economist at First Standard Financial.

"Of course, there are still a lot of geopolitical tensions out there, but the market could also be responding to the lack of fireworks" from the U.S.-China meeting last week, Cardillo said.

Traders work on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) in New York.
Brendan McDermid | Reuters
Traders work on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) in New York.

President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping met at the Mar-a-Lago in Florida last week, in which the two leaders struck a friendly note. Some market participants looked at the meeting as a potential risk for stocks.

Investors also contended with a U.S. airstrike on a Syrian airfield late Thursday and, on Saturday, a U.S. official told Reuters that a U.S. Navy strike group will be moving close to the Korean peninsula as a show of force.

"The equity markets escaped through a minefield of potentially damaging economic and geopolitical news and events last week to finish the period little changed," Bruce Bittles, chief investment strategist at Baird, said in a note.

"The geopolitical developments add a level of uncertainty but could serve the markets well by keeping investor confidence from gaining too strong a foothold," Bittles said.

But Sam Stovall of CFRA Research noted Monday that "shock" events like the Syria attack don't typically derail a bull market's long-term outlook. That's why the market was able to quickly recover, the analyst said.

Stocks got off to a roaring start this year, posting solid gains for the first quarter. That said, the surge in stock prices has increased valuation concerns ahead of a highly anticipated earnings season. JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo and Citigroup are among the companies set to report this week.

"At least right now, what I'm most interested in this week is hearing from the bank CEO's who report earnings on Thursday," said Peter Boockvar, chief market analyst at The Lindsey Group. "Are companies tapping the capital markets instead of utilizing bank loans? Are companies just lessening their demand for credit because of already high leverage ratios?"

Overseas, European equities ended mostly flat, with the pan-European Stoxx 600 index closing just below breakeven. In Asia, stocks closed mixed, with the Nikkei 225 rising 0.71 percent and the Shanghai composite dropping 0.5 percent.

Symbol
Name
Price
 
Change
%Change
DJIA
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S&P 500
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NASDAQ
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The Dow Jones industrial average rose 1.92 points, or 0.01 percent, to close at 20,658.02, with Caterpillar leading advancers and Merck the top decliner.

The S&P 500 gained 1.62 points, or 0.07 percent, to end at 2,357.16, with energy leading six sectors higher and telecommunications lagging.

The Nasdaq advanced 3.11 points, or 0.5 percent, to close at 5,880.93.

About two stocks advanced for every decliner at the New York Stock Exchange, with an exchange volume of 661.82 million and a composite volume of 2.777 billion at the close.

The CBOE Volatility Index (VIX), widely considered the best gauge of fear in the market, traded near 14.1.

Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled Stovall.

On tap this week:

What to Watch

Monday

4:10 p.m. Fed Chair Janet Yellen delivers remarks at the University of Michigan Ford School of Public Policy

Tuesday

6:00 a.m. NFIB survey

10:00 a.m. JOLTS

1:45 p.m. Minneapolis Fed President Neel Kashkari

Wednesday

Earnings: Fastenal, Shaw Communications, Pier 1 Imports

8:30 a.m. Import prices

2:00 p.m. Federal budget

Thursday

Earnings: Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo, PNC Financial, Taiwan Semiconductor, First Republic Bank, Commerce Bancshares, Apogee, Infosys

8:30 a.m. Jobless claims

8:30 a.m. PPI

Friday

U.S. markets closed

8:30 a.m. Retail sales

8:30 a.m. CPI

10:00 a.m. Consumer sentiment

10:00 a.m. Business inventories