Stocks Pare Gains Ahead of Close; HP Falls

Stocks pared gains in the final hour of trading another session of quiet trading despite unrest in the Middle East and Libya, debt troubles in Europe, and mixed economic news in the U.S.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average rose more than 35 points after rising 84 points on Thursday. At current levels, the Dow is just below the level where it would be in positive territory for the month.

Among Dow components, IBM and Chevron gained, while Hewlett-Packard slumped.

The S&P 500 and the Nasdaq also gained. All three major stock indexes looked set to end the week in positive territory after two straight weeks of declines.

The CBOE Volatility Index, widely considered the best gauge of fear in the market, fell to nearly 17.

Among key S&P sectors, materials, energy and telecom advanced.

The market keeps moving slowly higher in the face of global geopolitical and economic worries, and mixed economic news in the U.S. , including a drop in The Thomson Reuters/University of Michigan consumer sentiment indexand Thursday's weak durable goods orders.

"As an investor, you kind of don’t have to do anything at this point, you’re still riding this wave up," said Jonathan Corpina, managing director, Meridian Equity Partners.

But volume has been extremely light, Corpina noted, which leads to higher volatility. In the final hour of trading, only 594 million shares had changed hands on the New York Stock Exchange floor.

Next week could be a different story as investors receive key economic news, ranging from auto sales to the March jobs picture ahead of the quarter end on March 31, a time when portfolio managers typically engage in "window dressing" their portfolios to improve quarterly returns. Add to this mix unexpected headlines out of Europe, Japan or the Middle East, and traders could be busy.

"If it’s resilient as everyone thinks it is, we’ll get the reaction that they’ve been right, that this market is resilient," says Corpina, who expects the market will continue to shake off any bad news and keep moving higher.

Oil prices traded flat despite planned protests in Bahrain and news thatSyrian troops fired on protesters, and as a military campaign continued against Libya.U.S. light sweet crude, fell to below $106 a barrel, while London Brent crude rose above $115 a barrel.

The higher prices could weigh on stocks amid fears they will dent the economic recovery, although rising prices haven't been a big factor in the markets in recent days.

“$125-$150 (per barrel of) oil is going to weigh on the market, I think that goes without saying. For the most part we’ve been able to shrug off the European woes," Ben Lichtenstein, President of told CNBC. Higher oil would however hurt the economy, he said.

Among tech stocks, Oracle gained more than 4 percent after the company forecast a rise in sales of new software this quarterand hiked its dividend by a fifth. And at least 16 brokerages raised their price target for the tech company.

And Accenture , a technology outsourcing and consulting firm, jumped higher after raising its 2011 outlook above analyst estimates.

Research In Motion continued to tumble after the BlackBerry maker's outlook for the current quarter fell short of estimates. In addition, its stock was downgraded by Bank of America Merrill Lynch, Deutsche Bank, and RW Baird.

Elsewhere, Best Buy fell more than 4 percent after Citi downgraded the electronics retailer to "sell," saying among several factors that the company's forecast was disappointing and "possibly too aggressive at the high end," including, among other things, that the company doesn't see earnings-per-share growth in the first half of 2012. In addition, Wedbush and RBC cut their price targets on the firm.

GE shares were flat after the conglomerate said it will keep funding work on a second engine for the Lockheed Martin F-35 fighter engine despite a stop-work order issued by the Pentagon.

Energy shares rose after Bespoke Investments said the sector has a positive earnings revisions ratio in the double digits. Valero and Hess were among the top gainers.

Financial stocks were mostly higher despite news that Standard & Poor's was concerned that banks may be making "excessive" dividend payouts to shareholders before the banks are sufficiently ready. Several banks announced dividend increases and stock buybacks earlier this week after the Fed approved their capital plans.

JPMorgan , Wells Fargo and Citigroup , which all announced dividend increases, were still trading higher.

Comex gold gained $10.20 per ouncethis week, or 0.7 percent, to close at $1,426.10. The dollar rose against a basket of currencies.

Among the news events traders will be on the look out for next week is the March nonfarm payrolls report from the government. One reason is that jobs are key to getting the economy back on track.

While the fall in jobless claims evident in Thursday's numbers was a positive trend, "there's still plenty of room for improvement," Scott Brown, chief economist at Raymond James, told Brown would like to see claims fall closer to 320,000 than 380,000.

With state and local governments still shedding jobs at a rate of 20,000 a month, Brown expects growth in the Labor Department's nonfarm payrolls report to remain below 200,000 a month. The government reports payrolls data for March next Friday.

In Friday's economic news, the Thomson Reuters/Consumer Sentiment Index fell to 65.5 in March, the lowest level since November 2009, from 77.5 in February.

And the second revision of U.S. economic growth by the Commerce Department was close to the initial reading of 3.1 percent made in January, but better than the 2.8 percent revision in February.

In Europe, leaders were geared up for a second day of meetings after they agreed late on Thursday to expand the euro zone’s temporary bailout fund in June.

The European debt crisis has deepened with the collapse of Portugal’s government earlier this week, raising the specter of another bailout. European markets were nevertheless slightly higher in early trade, following Asian markets, which also rose.

In Japan, the situation at the Fukushima nuclear power plant worsened, with officials saying one of the reactors may have experienced a serious breach of the core.

On Tap Next Week:

MONDAY: Personal income and spending, pending home sales, two-year Treasury note auction; Lockhart speaks, Evans speaks.
TUESDAY: S&P Case-Shiller home price index, consumer confidence, five-year Treasury note auction, FDIC meeting on mortgage rules; Earnings from Lennar before-the-bell; Bullard speaks. WEDNESDAY: Mortgage applications, Challenger job-cut report, ADP employment report, oil inventories, seven-year Tresaury note auction, farm prices, Wal-Mart international investor conference; Earnings from Family Dollar before-the-bell and Mosaic after-the-bell; Bullard and Hoenig speak.
THURSDAY: Weekly jobless claims, Chicago PMI, factory orders, money supply; Lacker speaks, Tarullo speaks.
FRIDAY: Auto sales, nonfarm payroll report, ISM manufacturing index, construction spending; Plosser speaks.

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