U.S. stocks erased most of their early declines, but finished the day mostly lower as a renewal of economic and political concerns in Italy kept major U.S. equity benchmarks off their all-time highs.
The Dow Jones Industrial Average pulled back 33.49 points, or 0.23%, to 14526.16, after falling as many as 120 points in the opening minutes of trading. The Standard & Poor's 500-stock index edged down 0.92 points, or 0.06%, to 1562.85, while the Nasdaq Composite inched up 4.04 points, or 0.12%, to 3256.52.
The day's reversal, which saw the S&P 500 turn briefly positive for the day in late trading, was a continuation of a recent trend that has seen stocks strengthen throughout the trading session. To some investors, that is a sign that U.S. equities remain attractive to investors around the globe, given the U.S. economy's relative strength and investors' search for global havens amid Europe's continued turmoil.
For the S&P 500, the fractional decline kept the measure within striking distance of its all-time closing high of 1565.15, on Oct. 9, 2007. Wednesday's trading marked the seventh day in the past 10 sessions that the closely-watched index has traded within five points of the closing high, without breaking through.
Even as U.S. investors grow more bullish, pushing the major benchmarks toward record highs, "we still have this 1,200-pound gorilla sitting in the corner of the room, and that's Europe," said Michael Shea, managing partner at Direct Access Partners.
"Until we have some sort of coherent, plausible structure in place, we're going to have these fits and starts," Mr. Shea said. "U.S. markets seem to want to go higher, but Europe is the millstone—it's the ball and chain."
Wednesday's stock action was driven by signs of further deterioration in Europe's economic prospects. The European Commission's economic-sentiment indicator for March fell for the first time since October, to 90 from February's 91.1, below expectations of 90.5. In Italy, retail sales and industrial orders both fell far short of expectations.
On the political front in Italy, Democratic Party leader Pier Luigi Bersani's attempts to form a coalition government took a hit after the anti-establishment Five-Star Movement rejected his call for support.
In addition, Cyprus's government is preparing aggressive curbs on the flow of cash out of the country, which will cap the amount of cash people can bring out of the country, as well as the amount of credit-card purchases of goods outside Cyprus.
The Stoxx Europe 600 fell 0.4% to a three-week low and Italy's FTSE MIB index pulled back 0.9%, while the euro weakened to below $1.28 for the first time in four months.
In the U.S., the declines were led by telecommunications and financial shares, amid the latest downturn in Europe's prospects. J.P. Morgan Chase led the Dow components lower, while Bank of America and Citigroup also declined. Pulling on the upside were health-care and utilities stocks, which are seen as less sensitive to changes in the economy. UnitedHealth rose led the Dow gainers.
"We're in better economic shape than the rest of the world right now," said Dan Peirce, a portfolio manager with State Street Global Advisors in Boston, which manages about $2.1 trillion in assets. "The U.S. is okay, and okay looks really good right now."
Mr. Peirce warned, however, that most of the stock-buying has come in less economically-sensitive sectors that pay dividends, suggesting investors still are seeking out relatively conservative investments. Over the past three months, Mr. Peirce said his firm has been downsizing its exposure to stocks, due in part to the increased volatility in Europe and the rising stock valuations. "That told us to dial down the aggressiveness of our portfolios," Mr. Peirce said.
In U.S. economic news, pending home sales for February fell 0.4%, a touch more than expectations for a 0.3% decline.
Crude oil reversed early declines and inched up 0.2% to $96.58 a barrel, while gold rose 0.7% to $1,606.20 an ounce. Although the dollar strengthened against the euro, it lost ground against the yen. Demand for Treasurys rose, sending the yield on the benchmark 10-year note down to 1.852%.
In corporate headlines, Apple declined after the company went to court in China amid accusations that it infringed voice-recognition software used for the "Siri" personal assistant on its iPhones.
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