Updated from 4:15 p.m. ESTStocks ended a back-and-forth trading session little changed Tuesday as investors weighed the effects of declining oil prices and prepared for the beginning of earnings season. The Dow Jones Industrial Average lost 6.89 points, or 0.06%, to 12,416.60, and the S&P 500 eased by 0.73 point, or 0.05%, at 1412.11. The Nasdaq Composite eked out a gain of 5.63 points, or 0.23%, to 2443.83. "The market trend continues to hang in the balance," said Ken Tower, chief market strategist with CyberTrader. "If one takes profits here and the uptrend resumes, one always has the option of opening new positions. Should a downtrend develop, those profits will be lost for, at least, a considerable period of time." Volume was strong again, with 2.96 billion shares changing hands on the New York Stock Exchange. The Nasdaq traded nearly 2.17 billion shares. Losers and winners were essentially even. The story of the new day took place in the oil market, where crude retraced much of a huge loss but still ended down 45 cents at $55.64 a barrel. Earlier, oil plummeted below $54. Analysts expect that crude inventories, which the Energy Department will report on Wednesday, will show the first build in several weeks. Other energy contracts were mixed. Larry Wachtel, senior market analyst with Wachovia Securities, says that a drop is "a two-edged sword. Energy is the leading group for the market, but falling oil prices certainly help consumers."
The same couldn't be said for shares of companies in the group, which were lower across the board. Exxon Mobil ( XOM) was off 0.8%, ConocoPhillips ( COP) lost 2.6%. BP ( BP) ended down 2.9%, and Chevron ( CVX) shed 1.2%. The Amex Oil Index finished lower by 1.6% and the NYSE Energy Index dropped 1.3%. Meanwhile, chip stocks were among the winners of the session, with the Philadelphia Semiconductor Sector Index adding 0.7%. Meanwhile, Sprint ( S) fell a day after the big telco said it lost 306,000 subscribers in the quarter ended Dec. 31 and disclosed plans to slash 5,000 jobs. Sprint's shares slid by $2.19, or 11.2%, to $17.45. Shares of Apple ( AAPL) soared to record highs after CEO Steve Jobs unveiled an all-in-one phone and iPod device, as well as the Apple TV, during the MacWorld expo in California. Apple finished higher by $7.10, or 8.3%, to $92.57. Other mobile-device makers didn't fare so good. Research In Motion ( RIMM) dropped 7.9%, Motorola ( MOT) fell 1.8%, and Nokia ( NOK) surrendered 1.3%. Elsewhere, GE ( GE) is reportedly shopping its plastics division, a unit that could be worth up to $10 billion. A published article said the company has contacted private equity firms about selling the business. Shares of GE finished unchanged at $37.55. Providing further evidence of the harder times that homebuilders are facing, D.R. Horton ( DHI) said first-quarter orders dropped 23% from a year ago. Still, the builder said its cancellation rate improved, and the stock added 8 cents, or 0.3%, to $25.47.
Treasury prices were mostly flat. The 10-year note was unchanged in price, yielding 4.66%, and the 30-year was off 1/32 to yield 4.74%. The dollar was dropping against most major currencies. Gold futures rose $5.60 to close at $615 an ounce, and silver jumped 23 cents to finish at $12.59 an ounce. Overnight in Asia, Japan's Nikkei rose 0.9% to 17,238, and Hong Kong's Hang Seng eased 0.7% to 19,898. In Europe, London's FTSE 100 was up 0.1% at 6196, and Germany's Xetra DAX gained 0.1% to 6614.