The Final Hour: Caution Ahead of Crucial Ukraine Vote

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- "Lacks conviction and direction," so a report card of markets could have read on Friday. Bourses flirted with gains in late afternoon trade after a day of mixed results and scant economic news. All eyes are now on a weekend independence vote in Ukraine, which could spark off more geopolitical uncertainty.

Domestically, traders point to an absence of strong buying or selling as a lackluster earnings season wraps up. But with few other places to stash cash -- Yellen's testimony this week confirmed rates will be low for a while -- investors are hamstrung about where else to put money.

"Macro conditions are lukewarm but positive and largely absent any systemic risk," Voya Investment Management chief market strategist Douglas Cote told clients.

The session saw a $35 billion mega-deal collapse between U.S.-based Omnicom and France's Publicis, after an internal tussle for control killed plans to create the largest global advertising group.

Risk indicators were soft: Financial stocks including Barclays and Credit Suisse were both off more than 1% amid a New York attorney general's probe into their high-speed trading platforms that also includes Goldman Sachs (GS). Financials have yet to show strong leadership that traders say is needed, if bourses are to push firmly higher.

And small caps -- another bellwether for risk appetite -- are approaching correction territory, having fallen more than 9% from their market highs. With little evidence that high valuations are justified, investors are retreating to larger blue-chip names.

More broadly, global conflict is feeding uncertainty: Pro-Russian activists in eastern Ukraine will push ahead with an independence vote on Sunday despite Russian president Putin's calls to postpone it (cynics say it's cause he knows they will lose). About 20 people died in clashes in Ukraine on Friday.

Assurances of supportive monetary policy from both Fed chair Janet Yellen and European Central Bank president Mario Draghi this week gave only a brief lift to stocks. As traders reflected, they weren't saying anything new. And Draghi has been known to play bluff -- previously talking up prospects of stimulus then failing to follow through.

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Gold Prices Steady as Weekend Ukraine Referendum Keeps Traders in Holding Pattern

-- By Jane Searle in New York

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