Stocks End Mostly Flat; Materials Drag

Stocks ended slightly higher, but remained at about the same place where they started Tuesday as investors held steady under a raft of earnings in anticipation of next week's elections and likely announcement of a new economic stimulus program from the Federal Reserve.

Stocks initially plunged at the open after a handful of weak earnings and a disappointing housing news, but pared its losses following a positive consumer confidence report.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average rose 5.14 points to close at 11,169,46, after ending the previous session at the highest levels since late April.

Bank of America , AmEx and Microsoft were the top gainers on the index, while DuPont and P&G slipped.

The S&P 500 rose 6.44 percent, or 0.3 percent to end at 2497.29 and the tech-heavy Nasdaq ended up 0.02 points to finish at 1185.64. The CBOE Volatility Index, widely considered the best gauge of fear in the market, traded above 20.

"On a macro-level, investors take to the polls and I'm starting to hear a little bit of rumblings that we might be in a situation of 'buy the rumor, sell the news,'" Jud Pyle, market analyst at PEAK6Investments told CNBC.

"We've had a run-up as investors placed bets that the Republicans might be winning here—we might get a selloff a week from Wednesday, but for now, there's been more buying pressure today," Pyle continued. "Maybe we get a little bit of a selloff, but there's a lot of underlying support to the broad market in general."

Materials dragged on the markets, weighed by soft commodity prices and disappointing earnings results from the steel sector.

Steelmakers were lower across the boardafter the world’s largest steelmaker ArcelorMittal as well as Pittsburgh-based U.S. Steel warned that demand was slowing, prices were falling and costs were rising. AK Steel also reported weak quarterly results.

Rivals such as world number three Posco and Nucor have already reported lower-than-expected quarterly results, the former cutting its 2010 forecast, the latter warning of uncertainty.

Meanwhile, Ford shares ended higher after the automobile firm posted its sixth straight quarterly profitand the company's best third-quarter performance since at least 1990. The company said its third-quarter net income rose 68 percent.

DuPont finished lower even after the maker of chemicals, building materials and agricultural products posted a higher-than-expected quarterly profitas sales rose in all six business units and across the globe. The Dow component also increased its 2010 earnings forecast above Wall Street's expectations.

Bristol-Myers Squibb posted a slight profit declineas its restrained spending was offset by flat sales of its drugs, lower income from its partners and bigger discounts to government due to the health care overhaul.

And reported an unexpected investment banking loss, sending its U.S.-listed shares down more than 5 percent.

Texas Instruments slipped after the chipmaker said Monday that it expects fourth-quarter revenue to decline from third-quarter levels. In addition, at least three brokerages raised their price targets on the firm.

Coach shares jumped almost 12 percent after the upscale retailer posted a higher-than-expected quarterly profit. Other retailers such as Abercrombie & Fitch and Macy's also gained.

And Royal Caribbean Cruises soared nearly 15 percent after the cruise operator posted a better-than-expected profit on stable demand and cost controls and boosted its full-year earnings outlook.

Lexmark International plunged 21 percent after the printer maker missed analyst revenue expectations and posted a tepid revenue forecast.

Broadcom , Dreamworks and Massey Energy and a handful of others are expected to report earnings this afternoon.

Sony shares finished higher as traders cited media reports speculating that the Japanese electronics maker could be a potential acquisition targetof Apple . The rumor follows a recent report from a Barron's article that said cash-rich Apple could be contemplating a big acquisition and noted speculation about Adobe , Sony and Disney as potential targets.

Meanwhile, Apple's rival Research In Motion jumped almost 6 percent.

Also in the tech sector, IBM shares finished slightly higher after the tech giant's board approved $10 billion in funds for stock repurchases, in addition to $2.3 billion left at the end of last month from a previous buyback plan.

In the day's economic news, consumer confidence rose slightly in October but remained near historically low levelsas concerns about the job market persisted, according to the Conference Board. Levels rose to 50.2 in October from a revised 48.6 in September, according to the group. Economists were expecting a reading of 49.2, according to a Reuters poll.

Meanwhile, prices of U.S. single-family homes fell in August, hovering around recent lowsafter the expiration of popular homebuyer tax credits, according a Standard & Poor's/Case-Shiller home price report.

The S&P/Case Shiller composite index of 20 metropolitan areas declined 0.3 percent in August from July on a seasonally adjusted basis, as expected in a Reuters poll. The dip followed a 0.6 percent July gain.

Treasury prices fellafter the government auctioned $35 billion of 2-year notes, which had a yield of 0.400 percent and a bid-to-cover ratio of 3.43. Auctions of 5-year and 7-year notes are expected on Wednesday and Thursday, respectively.

The dollar made back some of its recent loses against a basket of currencies and recovered from record lows against the yen. Japanese officials signaled their willingness to step into the market to curb the yen's strength.

Comments from New York Fed President William Dudley also helped to boost the greenback. Dudley said that the decision on whether to implement a large wave of quantitative easing or incremental moves would be down to the economic context.

Dudley is due to speak further at 4:30 pm ET on the state of the regional economy at Rochester, New York.

Oil prices settled almost flat at $82.55 a barrelafter swings between negative and positive territory, while gold settled below $1,339 an ounce.

Coming Up This Week:
TUESDAY: Earnings from Broadcom, Dreamworks and Massey Energy after-the-bell.
WEDNESDAY: MBA mortgage applications, durable goods, new home sales, oil inventories, 5-year note auction; before-the-bell earnings from Comcast, P&G, ConocoPhillips, Deutsche Bank, Sprint; after-the-bell earnings from Visa, Allstate, Symantec
THURSDAY: Jobless claims, natural gas inventories, 7-year note auction; before-the-bell earnings from ExxonMobil, Shell, AutoNation, Motorola, Potash, Blackstone; after-the-bell earnings from Microsoft and MetLife.
FRIDAY: GDP, employment cost index, Chicago PMI, consumer sentiment, farm prices; before-the-bell earnings from Chevron, Merck and Cigna.

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