US Stocks Rise, Fall, Rise Again

US Stocks Rise, Fall, Rise Again
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The market struggled for direction Friday, signaling what could be a mundane end to an electrifying week. The Dow Jones industrial average and the broader Standard & Poor’s 500 rose in the first half-hour of trading, then wavered between small gains and losses. Around mid-day, the Dow was basically flat at 13,253 and the S&P 500 was up 2 at 1,404.

The Nasdaq composite index was down for most of the morning, then inched up 2 points to 3,058.

Bank of America led the Dow higher with a gain of almost 4 percent, helped by a report that its proportion of delinquent loans fell in February.

Energy companies were the biggest gainers in the S&P 500 index. Transocean, an offshore drilling company, rose 4.5 percent. Analysts from at least three firms raised their price targets on the company, encouraged by its reports of new contracts. Appliance maker Whirlpool fell almost 3 percent, the most in the S&P.

Investors were weighing competing data about the U.S. economy, which likely contributed to the market’s vacillations.

The University of Michigan’s closely watched consumer sentiment index came in lower than the previous month and below analysts’ expectations, driven by worries about gas prices.

The Labor Department also noted that gas prices soared 6 percent in February.

Gas is currently selling for an average of $3.83 per gallon in the U.S., 31 cents more than a month ago. It has spiked as Iran’s continued nuclear program sows tension in the Middle East. Some analysts also blame the Federal Reserve, which has pumped cheap money into the economy in an attempt to help it recover. But that has also put pressure on the U.S. dollar. When the dollar falls in value, it takes more of them to buy the same amount of oil.

However, the yield on the 10-year Treasury continued to rise. That’s a sign that investors are more comfortable with the economy, because it indicates they’re more willing to take money out of the government bonds and into riskier investments like the stock market.

Excluding gas prices, data from the Labor Department’s consumer price index provided some hopeful signs. Food prices, which have been rising and crimping household budgets, were unchanged for the first time in 19 months.

Earlier this week, the market took off, with both the Nasdaq and the S&P 500 crossing milestones they hadn’t reached for years. On Tuesday, the Dow, the Nasdaq and the S&P 500 all recorded their biggest percentage gains of the year. As of Thursday, the Dow had climbed for seven straight days, its longest streak so far this year.

The euphoria was fueled by what investors saw as encouraging news about the unemployment rate and retail sales. But others cautioned that the improvements were incremental and unconvincing, driving short-term market surges but little else.

“It’s becoming so much of a sound bite economy,” said Ziad Abdelnour, CEO of private equity firm Blackhawk Partners.

Abdelnour, who has been investing in commodities like oil, gas and water, worries over tension in the Middle East, the burgeoning deficit in the U.S., and uncertainty about the direction of the U.S. government.

“There are a lot of factors making me very uncomfortable about the stock market,” Abdelnour said. “I’m not optimistic at all.”

Apple, which released the iPad 3 on Friday, fell 1 percent in early trading and then rose a fraction around mid-day. It’s up nearly 45 percent for the year.

Markets in Europe gained. Spain’s main index climbed despite a report signaling its debt load is growing heavier. Stocks in Germany, which has been one of the strongest euro countries throughout the debt crisis, rose after Chancellor Angela Merkel said she opposed a big increase in Europe’s financial rescue fund.

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