Stocks fluctuated between small gains and losses in a light-volume session on Tuesday, suggesting a 5 percent rally over the past four trading sessions may have largely run its course.
The S&P 500 turned positive for the year on Friday, with improving economic data helping to boost equities. The gains, which lifted the benchmark index above its 200-day moving average, were amplified by the light pre-holiday trading.
Doug Roberts, chief investment strategist at Channel Capital Research.com in Shrewsbury, New Jersey, said stocks were likely to drift higher into the end of the year even if gains were slight.
We'll probably have a slight drift upwards but there's not a lot of volume, he said. In the absence of any bad news, we could see a drift up over the next four days.
In the latest economic data, consumer confidence rose more than expected in December, hitting an eight-month high, as Americans grew more upbeat about the labor market and their financial situations.
Sears Holdings Corp
The Dow Jones industrial average <.DJI> dropped 1.74 points, or 0.01 percent, to 12,292.26. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index <.SPX> gained 0.28 point, or 0.02 percent, to 1,265.61. The Nasdaq Composite Index <.IXIC> gained 0.09 point, or 0.00 percent, to 2,618.73.
Going into the last trading week of the year, the Dow is up 6.2 percent and the Nasdaq is down 1.3 percent. The S&P's performance is turning out to be the flattest in more than 40 years. The index is up less than 1 percent, which is its smallest move in either direction since 1970.
Equity markets often benefit from seasonal strength into the end of the year -- a phenomenon known as the Santa Claus rally. The last five days of the year and the first two of January have produced an average 1.6 percent gain for the S&P 500 since 1969, according to the Stock Trader's Almanac.
However, investors have warned about reading too much into the year-end rally. They warn that the outlook for the year ahead is still murky with many of the same problems that dogged markets in 2011 still unresolved.
Lest anyone get too excited, this relatively constructive outlook heading into 2012 represents only a brief reprieve from elevated equity volatility, said Jim Strugger, a derivatives strategist at MKM Partners in a note.
The outlook from Sears dragged on other retailers. JC Penney
U.S. single-family home prices fell slightly more than expected in October, according to S&P/Case-Shiller data, coming after better-than-expected data on the sector last week.
Bank of America Corp
(Reporting By Edward Krudy; editing by Kenneth Barry)
Corrects paragraph 9 to show Santa rally includes first two days of January.