Stocks were treading water on Monday after a week of gains as investors waited for the start of an earnings season that will show whether profits and outlooks will be strong enough to extend stocks' advance.
Aluminum producer Alcoa Inc rose 1.3 percent to $17.24 ahead of its fourth-quarter earnings announcement expected after the close. As the first Dow component to report results, Alcoa unofficially launches the earnings season.
The Dow and S&P 500 were little changed near 15-month highs while the Nasdaq was dragged lower by big-cap technology stocks.
From the point of view of the market, the big question is about guidance and 2010 numbers. Will they be enough to move stocks forward? said James Meyer, chief investment officer at Tower Bridge Advisers in West Conshohocken, Pennsylvania.
It may be a mixed picture by industry, but right now the market is saying that tech stocks have moved too far too fast.
The Dow Jones industrial average <.DJI> rose 15.48 points, or 0.16 percent, to 10,635.27. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index <.SPX> slipped 0.96 point, or 0.09 percent, to 1,143.93. The Nasdaq Composite Index <.IXIC> dropped 8.35 points, or 0.36 percent, to 2,308.81.
The market initially rose as stronger trade figures from China added to optimism about the global recovery, but the market struggled to keep pace with a rally that has driven the S&P 500 higher for 12 of the last 14 sessions.
Weighing on the Nasdaq was Apple Inc , down 0.9 percent to $210.01.
Another lagging big-cap tech company was International Business Machines Corp , down 1 percent to $129.61.
Consumer staples were also pressured after BMO Capital Markets downgraded the personal care and household products sector. The firm cut Dow component Procter & Gamble to market perform from outperform, sending the stock down 0.9 percent to $59.90.
The biggest percentage loser on the Dow was Walt Disney Co , which sank 2.1 percent to $31.20 after Janney Capital Markets downgraded the stock on a run-up in the shares.
Analysts on average expect Alcoa to show a profit of 6 cents a share compared with a loss in the 2008 fourth quarter, but they see revenue down from a year ago.
Limiting losses in the Dow was Chevron , which rose 1.7 percent to $80.78 after Citigroup lifted the company to buy from hold.
Data from China showed the country ended 2009 with record monthly imports of crude oil and soybeans and a strong appetite for iron ore and copper, while its exports rose 17.7 percent year-over-year, dwarfing a forecast for a 4 percent rise.
(Editing by Kenneth Barry)