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Stocks Finish Higher; Alcoa Posts Loss

Stocks in this article: ^DJI ^GSPC ^IXIC

Updated with Alcoa earnings results

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- U.S. stocks finished a touch higher Monday on mixed signals from Europe and before Alcoa (AA) unofficially kicked off earnings season with a quarterly loss.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average gained 32.7 points, or 0.2%, to close at 12,392. The S&P 500 rose 2.9 points, or 0.2%, at 1280 and the Nasdaq added 2.3 points, or 0.09%, at 2677.

Dow component Alcoa reported a loss from continuing operations, excluding items, of $34 million, or 3 cents a share, on revenue of $5.99 billion for the fourth quarter. The aluminum-products maker lost $193 million, or 19 cents a share, in the quarter on a continuing operations basis.

The tug of war between Europe and the U.S. continues to plague investors trying to figure out how much risk to take on in the market.

Some watchers say that a high level of pessimism around fourth quarter earnings opens up the possibility for upside in stocks should companies top forecasts. "Cited in many places is the 'bearishness' of investors and cash on the sidelines that should push stocks higher in the months ahead," notes Paul Nolte, managing director at Dearborn Partners.

According to S&P Capital IQ, S&P 500 companies probably saw their fourth quarter earnings grow by 7.2% from a year earlier, significantly lower than growth of 19.7%, 19.2% and 17.6% in the prior three quarters.

"What I have consistently found to be one of the big challenges in a market environment like this is to not let my personal views about the tough economy take me out of trades that are still working well," said James "Rev Shark" DePorre, founder and CEO of Shark Asset Management.

Alcoa ran up 2.9% to $9.43 during the regular sesssion, and led the Dow index, despite negative warnings on its earnings. The company said its global smelting capacity will be reduced by 12% after the closure of certain plants and that it would record fourth-quarter restructuring charges of $155 million to $165 million. Analysts' expectations on Alcoa's results varied from a loss of 5 cents a share to a profit of 1 cent.

Ongoing talks in Europe were also presenting a conundrum. Some analysts are optimistic that leaders can break away from stalling on key issues as they did in 2011 while others say that meaningful changes are a long way down the road. Markets barely budged earlier after German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that fiscal pact talks with French President Nicolas Sarkozy went well and announced their intention that no country should abandon the euro. More talks among euro area leaders are expected in the lead up to a summit in Brussels on Jan 30, including a meeting between Italian Premier Mario Monti and Merkel on Wednesday.

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