Choppy Stocks Finish Week Little Changed

Stocks ended a mundane week mixed, despite modest gains Friday fueled by plunging oil prices that nevertheless couldn't offset a cautionary trading environment.

The Dow finished off about 0.5 percent but the S&P 500 was flat and the Nasdaq registered a gain of nearly 2 percent in a week dominated by largely downbeat retail earnings reports and more losses for commodities, particularly gold and oil.

Friday trading was lackluster even as the dollar surged, and a big drop in energy prices prevented the indexes from posting the gains normally associated with a plunge in oil.

"I think people are beginning to worry that the collapse in commodities and oil are a sign that the global economy has hit a wall," Art Cashin, director of floor operations at UBS, said on CNBC. "We're back to the old days when America sneezes and the rest of the world gets pneumonia."

Dow component Chevron led a host of energy producers moving to the downside as Wall Street beat down shares in metals and other commodity spaces as well.

Still, there were benefits from the fall in oil.

Airlines, Delta and United parent UAL in particular, saw shares also continue their rise on hopes of declining energy prices.

The dollar surged to a six-month high against the euro, with jitters on shrinking euro area economic growth taking the upper hand.

"Stocks have been directly linked to oil prices for some time and the further decline in oil prices is definite support for the consumer and definite support for the economy," Alan Gayle, senior investment strategist at Trusco Capital Management in Atlanta, told Reuters. "So equities are liking the decline in oil and they are liking the stronger dollar."

Gold slipped below $800 an ounce for the first time since December 2007 as a firmer dollar and weak oil prices robbed the metal of its appeal as an alternative investment.

Oil also declined on fears of reduced global demand.

OPEC cut its demand forecast and said supply levels were adequate, indicating a more comfortable relationship between the two key market dynamics. The organization also said the strengthening dollar, reduction in global tensions and demand curbs suggest a bearish outlook for oil.

Elsewhere in the markets, bond insurers continued their dramatic turnaround, as MBIA and Ambac spiked after Standard & Poor's affirmed its AA credit rating on the two companies and said further downgrades were unlikely.

MBIA had been off 54 percent and Ambac 83 percent in 2008 after the subprime mortgage market collapsed and borrowers began defaulting on securities the two insurers backed.

Retail Earnings Disappoint, But Shares Rise

At the same time, more weak earnings reports from retailers served as a reminder of headwinds for the consumer, yet shares showed gains as fears lessened that transportation costs would eat into profits.

Earnings from retailer JC Penney narrowly beat estimates, but the company expected lower third-quarter sales. More earnings weakness came from teen clothing retailer Abercrombie & Fitch , which also showed disappointing earnings that reflected a decrease in sales at stores open at least a year.

Earnings after the bell Thursday from high-end retailer Nordstrom's showed a 21 percent drop in profits, while Kohl's net income also fell but topped analyst expectations.

Big gainers for the day among more actively traded stocks included telecom Sprint Nextel and Advanced Micro Devices.

Procter & Gamble led gainers on the Dow.