Aluminum producer Alcoa Inc , a Dow component, is expected to report a quarterly profit after the closing bell in an unofficial kick-off to the reporting season. Its stock rose 0.3 percent to $17.29.
The Dow and S&P 500 were little changed near 15-month highs while the Nasdaq was dragged lower by big-cap technology stocks.
Investors are skeptical as to how robust the earnings dynamic is going to be, given the state of the economy and continued high unemployment, said Joseph Battipaglia, market strategist at Stifel Nicolaus in Yardley, Pennsylvania.
Revenue growth may not be as strong as you'd expect at this point in the economic cycle, and the hesitancy in the market speaks to that.
The Dow Jones industrial average <.DJI> rose 9.83 points, or 0.09 percent, to 10,627.87. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index <.SPX> dropped 0.76 point, or 0.07 percent, to 1,144.22. The Nasdaq Composite Index <.IXIC> dropped 9.94 points, or 0.43 percent, to 2,307.31.
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 1 percent to $209.91.
Another lagging big-cap tech company was International Business Machines Corp , down 1.3 percent to $129.17.
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 1.3 percent to $59.63. The S&P consumer staples sector <.GSPS> fell 0.3 percent and was among the biggest drags on the market.
The biggest percentage loser on the Dow was Walt Disney Co , which sank 2 percent to $31.23 after Janney Capital Markets downgraded the stock, citing a run-up in the shares.
Limiting losses in the Dow was Chevron , which rose 1.6 percent to $80.76 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.