Stocks were flat, trading in a tight range, as the mood of investors soured when an index measuring services showed a decline in November.
The Dow briefly turned negative after the Institute of Supply Management's gauge of non-manufacturing activity fell to 48 percent, indicating contraction.
Stocks had opened mildly positive as a continued decline in weekly jobless claims help brighten hopes that the decline in the economy was abating—but surprisingly weak retail sales numbers tempered the enthusiasm.
Investors weighed the economic news against ramifications from one of the biggest deals in Wall Street history: The NBC Universal/Comcast deal became official ahead of the open, giving Comcast a 51 percent stake in NBCU (the parent of CNBC.com), while GE would retain a 49 percent stake.
Bank of America was helping spur a rise in bank stocks. BofA has announced it will pay back the $45 billion it took in TARP funds, which will allow it to escape from pay restrictions as it searches for a new CEO.
BofA and JPMorgan Chase led Dow gainers. The SPDR Financial exchange-traded fund gaining nearly 1 percent in the early going, reflecting strength in the sector.
Alcoa and Home Depot led the bluechip losers.
"Yesterday’s announcement from Bank of America that it would repay its TARP loans, the Comcast-GE agreement on NBC Universal, anecdotal evidence from the Fed’s Beige book report along with signs that a potential debt crisis in Dubai is moving to a workout process have all joined to provide the markets uplift today," John Stoltzfus, analyst with Ticonderoga Securities in New York, wrote in an analysis.
On the economy, the government said 457,000 jobless claims were filed last week, coinciding with a monthly productivity gain of 8.1 percent that was a bit soft against expectations..
Market gains were held in check by some dismal news from retailers.