NEW YORK ( TheStreet) - Stocks finished mixed Monday amid light trading, as strength in basic materials was countered by weakness in the tech sector. The Dow Jones Industrial Average finished up by 23 points, or 0.2%, to 12,400, its highest level since June 2008, after trading flat for most of the session. The S&P 500 closed marginally higher at 1333, while the Nasdaq Composite also settled flat at 2789, recovering from earlier weakness. Wal-Mart ( WMT), General Electric ( GE) and Johnson & Johnson ( JNJ) finished near the top of the Dow, while Intel ( INTC), Hewlett-Packard ( HPQ) and Home Depot ( KFT) were the biggest blue-chip laggards. Technology stocks slipped after the Semiconductor Industry Association said the three-month moving average of global chip sales fell 1.1% in February from January. Intel's stock shed 1.2% at $19.49, while shares of Advanced Micro Devices ( AMD) slid 3.1% to $8.10. Nvidia's ( NVDA) stock fell 3.6% to $17.55. After the bell, Texas Instruments ( TXN) said it will acquire National Semiconductor ( NSM) for $6.5 billion. Semiconductor stocks were gaining in aftermarket trading. The basic materials sector showed the session's best performance as higher metals prices boosted mining companies. Silver miners shined, with Pan American Silver ( PAAS) and Silver Wheaton ( SLW) gained 4.6% and 2.9% respectively. Miners also got a lift from fresh deal news. Hong Kong-based Minmetals Resources said it
intends to make an all-cash offer to acquire Equinox Minerals for 6.3 billion Canadian dollars ($6.5 billion). In addition, a unit of Molycorp ( MCP) agreed to acquire a 90.023% controlling stake in AS Silmet Grupp, one of only two rare earth processing facilities in Europe, in a transaction valued at $89 million. Molycorp's stock soared 12% to close at $66.41. Overall trading, however, was lackluster with no economic reports scheduled for Monday's session to give markets direction. Volumes hovered around 648 million shares on the New York Stock Exchange, while just over 1.6 billion shares changed hands on the Nasdaq. "The market is responding to silver making new highs and gold approaching record highs. We're seeing a market that's struggling for direction at this time, but, by the same token, not declining," said Peter Cardillo, chief market economist at Avalon Partners. "I think the market is digesting some of the recent Fed speak but is in a holding pattern, waiting for Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke's insight." Recent comments from the Federal Reserve and the European Central Bank have the market anticipating moves to curb inflationary pressures even though concerns about the recovery's sustainability remain.
Last week, Minneapolis Fed President Narayana Kocherlakota said the Fed may need to raise rates by half of a percentage point by the end of the year if core inflation rises. Fed officials Charles Plosser of Philadelphia and Richard Fisher of Dallas have signaled their support for an early end to the Fed's second round of quantitative easing of late; although New York Fed President William Dudley said the program should run its planned course through June 2011. Meanwhile, a rate hike may be in store for Europe after the ECB's meeting on Thursday. ECB President Jean-Claude Trichet recently said he might raise rates in April to cool inflation. At 7:15 p.m. EDT, Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke is scheduled to speak at the Atlanta Federal Reserve Bank Financial Markets Conference in Stone Mountain, Ga. Investors also may be staying on the sidelines as they await pre-announcements during the "confessional period" ahead of earnings season next week. Pfizer ( PFE) is
selling its Capsugel business to Kohlberg Kravis Roberts ( KKR) for $2.375 billion in cash. Pfizer's stock inched ahead by 0.8% to $20.54 and KKR gained 1.3% at $17.14. Shares of Southwest Airlines ( LUV) shed 1.6% to $12.46 after the company grounded roughly 80 planes for inspections and cancelled 300 flights on Sunday when a hole in the passenger cabin of one of its Boeing ( BA) 737-300s forced an emergency landing in Yuma, Ariz. Ford ( F), Iron Mountain ( IRM), Mastercard ( MA), Tesoro ( TSO) and Sandisk ( SNDK) were the biggest gainers on the S&P 500. Gold prices neared record highs and silver hit a 30-year high Monday as inflation fears pushed investors to seek safe havens. The June gold contract traded $4.10 higher to settle at $1,433 an ounce and silver for May delivery rose 76 cents to settle at $38.48 an ounce. The May crude contract jumped 53 cents to settle at $108.47 a barrel as continued power clashes near a key oil-producing town in Libya created uncertainty about when the country can resume exports.
The benchmark 10-year Treasury rose 5/32, diluting the yield to 3.431%. The dollar strengthened against a basket of currencies with the dollar index up by 0.1%.
. London's FTSE gained 0.1%, while the DAX in Frankfurt shed 0.06%. Earlier, Japan's Nikkei added 0.1%, and Hong Kong's Hang Seng rose 1.5%. --Written by Melinda Peer and Shanthi Bharatwaj in New York.