Updated from 4:09 p.m. ESTStocks closed little changed Monday as a looming speech from the Federal Reserve chairman kept traders from cashing in on lower oil prices and strong overseas sessions. The Dow Jones Industrial Average lost 5.12 points, or 0.05%, to 11,274.53, and the S&P 500 fell 2.17 points, or 0.17%, to 1305.08. Meanwhile, the Nasdaq Composite finished up 7.63 points, or 0.33%, to 2314.11. Stocks had shown broad strength last week, with blue chips closing a "quadruple witching" options-expiration Friday near five-year highs. The 10-year Treasury bond was up 5/32 in price to yield 4.65%, while the dollar was flat against the yen and euro after steadily falling last week. "Today was a day after quadruple witching, so it may have been a clean-up day for everyone," said Jay Suskind, head of institutional equity trading with Ryan Beck & Co. "There was also a lot of apprehension ahead of the Fed chairman's speech to keep anyone from taking new positions." About 1.42 billion shares changed hands on the New York Stock Exchange, with decliners beating advancers by a 9-to-7 margin. Volume on the Nasdaq was 1.97 billion, with decliners matching advancers. Investors were anxious ahead of a talk from Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke, who will be speaking in front of the Economic Club of New York this evening. "The market did nothing, showing that no one really knows what Bernanke will say," said Edgar Peters, chief investment officer with Pan Agora. "There's a growing suspicion that things will not be that positive. The message he gives will be very ambiguous or negative regarding the interest rate hike campaign." Suskind adds that while the consensus may be that "we're at the end of the rate hike cycle rather than not, but we may get different information tonight. We're hoping to get some clarity and hopefully word that inflation will stay subdued." On the economic front, the Commerce Department said the index of leading indicators fell 0.2% in February, better than the anticipated 0.3% decline for the month. However, January's number was revised from a gain of 1.1% to a gain of 0.5%. "The January revision is mostly due to the plunge in aircraft orders reported in the durable-goods numbers," said Ian Shepherdson, chief economist with High Frequency Economics. "In February, the index was pulled down by lower consumer confidence, higher jobless claims, shorter delivery times and lower building permits." On Tuesday's economic docket, investors will see the Labor Department's producer price index for February. The headline number is expected to decline 0.2% while the core number, which excludes food and energy, is expected to rise 0.2%.
Crude oil, which rose last week as tensions built in a handful of overseas hotspots, fell sharply , extending a reaction to Friday's reduced demand forecast by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries. April crude finished down $2.35 to $60.42 a barrel. "We've been in this oil trading range and, until we break out, it's still tough," said Suskind. "Oil really needs to get below $60 a barrel before we can start getting excited." By sector, the Amex Oil index lost 2.1% and the S&P Retail index was off 0.3%. Meanwhile, the Amex Airline index rose 3.1%, and the Philadelphia Semiconductor Sector index finished up 0.4%. After the bell Monday, Oracle ( ORCL) posted third-quarter earnings of $765 million, or 14 cents a share, up from $540 million, or 10 cents a share, a year ago. Excluding items, the company earned 19 cents a share, beating the Thomson First Call consensus by a penny. On an adjusted basis, revenue rose to $3.53 billion from $3.09 billion, matching expectations. Oracle finished the session up 12 cents, or 0.9%, to $13.72 It was trading lower in the after-hours session. Google ( GOOG) finished higher after a federal judge turned down the government's request to force the search giant to turn over a selection of queries entered by users. In a partial victory, Google was ordered to provide 50,000 randomly chosen Web addresses to investigators trying to enforce an anti-child-pornography law. Google rose $8.40, or 2.5%, to $348.19. General Motors' ( GM) board wants more information on what led the automaker to underestimate its 2005 loss by $2 billion. Directors called for an investigation of the error after a conference call held to review the disclosure late last week, The Wall Street Journal reported. GM gave up 28 cents, or 1.3%, to close at $20.85. Wal-Mart ( WMT) will hire 150,000 people in China over the next five years as part of a major expansion into the country, according to Wal-Mart Asia's chief executive Joe Hatfield. The world's largest retailer plans to open 20 stores in China by the end of 2006. Wal-Mart closed up $1.07, or 2.3%, to $47.76. Hospital operator Health Management Associates ( HMA) updated its 2006 earnings guidance Monday, saying it expects to turn a profit of $1.43 to $1.49 a share during the year, including a net 7-cent charge. The Thomson First Call consensus is $1.49 a share. HMA said patient volume is growing less briskly than previously anticipated. The stock fell 26 cents, or 1.2%, to $20.95.
Lucent ( LU) fell following a bearish article by Barron's. The story said Lucent could fall as low as $2.25 if customers demand lower prices and if demand for next-generation telecom services falls short of expectations. Shares were down 8 cents, or 2.8%, to close at $2.82. Arts and crafts retailer Michaels Stores ( MIK) jumped 12.9% after the company said it will explore strategic alternatives, including a possible sale of the company. The stock was up $4.39 to $38.35. Retailer Pier 1 Imports ( PIR) said it will sell its U.K. subsidiary to Palli Ltd. for about $15 million. Pier 1 expects to record a pretax charge of $7 million. Shares lost 30 cents, or 2.6%, to $11.32. Among ratings moves, Goldman Sachs upgraded OfficeMax ( OMX) to outperform from in line, saying it believes the office-products retailer to be an attractive turnaround opportunity. OfficeMax gained 30 cents, or 1%, to $29.88. Banc of America Securities cut its rating for Mills ( MLS) to sell from neutral and dropped its stock price target to $30 from $40. The firm downgraded Mills after the company delayed filing its Form 10-K for 2005 and said it might need to restate prior results. Mills dropped $4.33, or 11.8%, to $32.40. Foreign markets were higher, with London's FTSE 100 losing 0.1% to 5991 and Germany's Xetra DAX rising 0.4% to 5903. In Asia, Japan's Nikkei rose 1.7% overnight to 16,625, while Hong Kong's Hang Seng adding 0.9% to 15,930.