Stock prices finished largely flat Wednesday as investors returned from the Christmas holiday to news of weaker-than-expected retail sales and more pain in the housing market.
The International Council of Shopping Centers said its index of chain-store sales rose 2.8% last week, putting merchants on track for a smaller holiday-season sales gain than the trade group originally expected. Still, hope remained that sales would rebound as shoppers started spending with holiday gift cards.
Other retail reports also proved disappointing. Target indicated its same-store sales might be down this month from a year earlier, while MasterCard said spending between Thanksgiving and Christmas using credit cards, cash and checks rose 3.6% -- at the low end of the expected range -- weighed down by slow sales of women's apparel. Excluding gasoline and car sales, the increase was 2.4%.
"The consumer is feeling some pain," said Frederic Dickson, market strategist at D.A. Davidson & Co. in Lake Oswego, Ore. "Investors are going to be looking for a spillover effect."
Meanwhile, the Standard & Poor's/Case-Shiller home price index fell 6.7% in October from a year earlier, marking its 10th consecutive year-to-year monthly decline and the steepest one since early 1991.
Financial stocks slipped after billionaire investor Warren Buffett said he had rebuffed financial firms that approached him about buying stakes.
The Dow Jones industrial average edged up 2.36 points to 13,551.69, eking out its fourth consecutive gain.
The Standard & Poor's 500 index climbed 1.21 points, or 0.1%, to 1,497.66, and the Nasdaq composite index rose 10.91 points, or 0.4%, to 2,724.41.
The Russell 2,000 index of smaller-company stocks climbed 2.64 points, or 0.3%, to 797.03.
Advancing and declining issues were just about even on the New York Stock Exchange.
Treasury bond yields rose, extending a recent ascent, as a government auction of $22 billion of two-year securities drew a higher yield than expected. The 10-year Treasury note climbed to 4.28% from 4.21% late Monday.
The dollar fell against most other major currencies, while gold hit a four-week high.
Oil prices surged. Crude futures rose to a one-month high of $96.54 in New York before falling back to settle at $95.97 a barrel, up $1.84.
Among retailers, Target fell $1.31, or 2.5%, to $51.16 after the nation's No. 2 retailer said sales for the five weeks through Jan. 5 at stores open at least a year would come in somewhere between a 1% decrease and a 1% increase compared to a year earlier. The company had previously projected a gain of 3% to 5%.
Macy's, parent of its namesake chain and Bloomingdale's, closed down $1.06, or 3.9%, at $25.95 after touching a three-year low of $25.25. Circuit City sank 33 cents, or 6.7%, to $4.62. Big Lots retreated $1.01, or 6.1%, to $15.65. Dillard's slid $1.11, or 5.5%, to $19.19. Wal-Mart Stores fell 36 cents, or 0.7%, to $48.38.
Financial stocks in the S&P 500 fell 0.5%, bringing their loss this year to 19%. Los Angeles-based CB Richard Ellis slipped 89 cents, or 3.9%, to $21.75. Citigroup fell 53 cents, or 1.7%, to $30.45.
Buffett, who runs Berkshire Hathaway, didn't say which financial firms had contacted him.
"We've seen some deals as you can imagine in this period," he said on cable channel CNBC. "So far, we have not seen a deal that causes me to start salivating."
Berkshire Hathaway rose $520 to $138,500 after saying Tuesday it would pay $4.5 billion to buy 60% of privately held Marmon Holdings, which owns more than 125 manufacturing and service businesses.
Bond insurer MBIA surged $2.21, or 11%, to $22.33 after Davis Selected Advisors, a money manager that is buying a $1.2-billion stake in Merrill Lynch, said it had boosted its stake in MBIA. Ambac Financial Group, another bond insurer, jumped $3.46, or 13%, to $30.14. Bear Stearns rose 49 cents to $89.29 after billionaire Joseph Lewis lifted his stake for the second time this month.
Overseas, Japan's Nikkei stock average rose 0.7%. Markets in Europe and Hong Kong remained closed.