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Stocks Limp to the Finish Line

The major averages close out the first quarter little changed.

Updated from 4:12 p.m. EDT

Wall Street endured a volatile session Friday as traders dealt with an abundance of economic data and geopolitical news, but the major averages ultimately finished the last day of the first quarter little changed.

The

Dow Jones Industrial Average

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added 5.60 points, or 0.05%, to 12,354.35, and the

S&P 500

slipped 1.67 points, or 0.12%, to 1420.86. The

Nasdaq Composite

rose 3.76 points, or 0.16%, to 2421.64.

The session in some ways mirrored the entire first quarter, which saw individual periods of big gains and losses, only to have the indices end near the flat line. For the quarter, the Dow ended down 0.9%, while the Nasdaq and S&P were both basically stagnant.

About 2.88 billion shares changed hands on the

New York Stock Exchange

, with advancers beating decliners by a 6-to-5 margin. Volume on the Nasdaq reached 2.07 billion shares, with winners outpacing losers 8 to 7.

For the week, the Dow fell 1%, the S&P lost 1.1%, and the Nasdaq shed 1.4%.

Earlier in the day, the Dow had jumped as many as 65 points after the Chicago purchasing managers' index showed a greater-than-expected rise. The index climbed to a reading of 61.7 in March from 47.9 the previous month. Economists anticipated a reading of 50.0.

While the survey is a regional one, it's viewed as having predictive qualities for national manufacturing data.

The momentum vanished on word the Commerce Department approved sanctions against paper imports from China. The government's move is the first duty law against China in 23 years. Following the news, the dollar fell against the world's major currencies.

To view Farnoosh Torabi's video take on today's market, click here

"There are a lot of aberrations going on," said Phillip Roth, chief technical market analyst with Miller Tabak. "The market is still in a mediocre rebound since mid-March. There's an awful lot of noise and doubt, between the Commerce Department's decision regarding China, the standoff in Iran and economic data. It's a difficult and tricky market to trade."

Elsewhere, the Census Bureau said construction spending unexpectedly rose 0.3% in February, compared with a 0.8% decline in January. Spending was believed to have probably fallen 0.5% last month.

Last, the University of Michigan's reading on consumer sentiment was revised down to 88.4, slightly below the previous reading of 88.8. Economists had expected no change.

"The economic numbers weren't really all that strong," said Paul Nolte, director of investments with Hinsdale Associates. "The economic picture really hasn't improved, and they haven't been bullish for the overall economy. It's hard to read anything into today's move, but the concern is how there isn't a lot of conviction in the market."

Prior to the opening bell, the Commerce Department said both measures rose a greater-than-forecast 0.6% in February.

Excluding food and energy, the personal consumption expenditure price index is now higher by 2.4% over the past year, outside of the

Federal Reserve's

comfort zone range of 1% to 2%.

Barry Hyman, equity market strategist with EKN Financial, said the consumption data don't show a tremendous worsening of inflation.

"There's some stabilization in the core inflation numbers, but I don't see the optimism that can be read into the number," Hyman said. "The PCE number is slightly higher, which tells us there's no interest-rate cut coming."

Next week will bring more economic and inflation data, including the closely watched employment report for March, as well as the Institute for Supply Management's manufacturing and service indices, among others.

"With the stock market overly concerned about the pace of growth for the U.S. economy, next week's economic data will provide additional information about what level the economy is growing," said Robert Pavlik, chief investment officer with Oaktree Asset Management.

Treasuries were little changed. The 10-year note was off 1/32, yielding 4.63%, and the 30-year bond was down 1/32, yielding 4.84%.

Stocks have had an uneven trading week thus far, and Thursday's session in particular served as a reminder of the market's recent volatility. Shares started strong, then pulled back to negative territory, before rebounding to close higher.

Following the prior close, news from one of the world's top PC makers dampened the mood.

Dell

(DELL) - Get Report

said it has found evidence of misconduct and several accounting errors. The computer giant also will have to delay its annual report, and its shares lost 0.8% to finish at $23.21.

Elsewhere, Dow component

United Technologies

set plans to buy the electronic security group of Rentokil Initial for $1.16 billion and sell its guarding businesses in the U.K. and Australia. The stock tacked on a penny at $65.

Among analyst actions, Stifel Nicolaus upgraded chipmaker

Broadcom

to buy from hold and raised

Nvidia

(NVDA) - Get Report

to hold from sell.

Broadcom climbed $1.02, or 3.3%, to $32.07, and Nvidia ended up 8 cents, or 0.3%, at $28.78.

Following Thursday's news that

U.S. Steel

(X) - Get Report

will acquire

Lone Star Technologies

(LSS)

in a $2.1 billion deal, UBS upgraded the former to neutral from reduce. Meanwhile, Bear Stearns and Matrix Research both issued downgrades for Lone Star.

U.S. Steel was off $2.05, or 2%, at $99.17. Lone Star slipped 8 cents, or 0.1%, and finished at $66.03.

As for commodities, oil was slightly lower, breaking a seven-session rise after gaining nearly 6% this week.

The front-month May contract was off by 16 cents to finish the week at $65.87 a barrel.

Other parts of the energy complex were mixed. Among precious metals, gold futures added $1.50 to $663 an ounce, and silver gained 11 cents to $13.45 an ounce.

Meanwhile, global stocks were mixed. London's FTSE 100 was down 0.3% at 6308, and Frankfurt's Xetra DAX tacked on 0.3% to 6917. Tokyo's Nikkei 225 was up 0.1% at 17,288, and Hong Kong's Hang Seng was off 0.1% at 19,801.