Stocks were little changed on Monday as investors looked to defensive names after a three-day rally and a day ahead of a Federal Reserve monetary policy statement.

Equities had traded modestly lower earlier in the session as weak data from China cast some doubts over the pace of global economic growth. Still, gains in groups less tied to growth were enough to offset weakness in cyclical sectors.

China's trade balance plunged $31.5 billion into the red in February as imports swamped exports to leave the largest deficit in at least a decade and fuel doubts about the extent to which frail foreign demand or seasonal distortion drove the drop.

The data cast some doubt on global economic growth prospects after Friday's payrolls report pointed to an improving domestic economy and pushed equities to their fourth straight weekly gain.

It isn't surprising that we would consolidate given the question marks about China and how far stocks have come, said Jonathan Lewis, chief investment officer at Samson Capital Advisors in New York. Risk assets are the focal point in a see-saw with signs of domestic growth on one side and overseas events on the other.

Utilities, consumer staples and telecom were the day's top three sectors, with utilities gaining 1.1 percent. Late Friday, Constellation Energy Group Inc agreed to pay $235 million to settle a probe of its wholesale power trading, clearing the way for its $7.9 billion sale to rival utility Exelon Corp.

Constellation rose 2.8 percent to $37.17 while Exelon rose 2.4 percent to $39.85.

The Dow Jones industrial average was up 39.05 points, or 0.30 percent, at 12,961.07. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index was down 0.03 points, or 0.00 percent, at 1,370.84. The Nasdaq Composite Index was down 4.33 points, or 0.14 percent, at 2,984.01.

The S&P 500, close to nearly a four-year high set two weeks ago, faces strong technical resistance.

Materials, energy and financial were the day's weakest groups, with energy pressured by a decline in crude oil prices.

Banks were pressured as a report from the Fed looms on the capital adequacy of the largest lenders. The KBW bank index fell 0.8 percent, with JPMorgan Chase down 1.3 percent at $40.50 and SunTrust Banks off 2.8 percent at $21.80.

Investors will also eye Tuesday's statement from the U.S. central bank's Federal Open Market Committee to see whether the Fed will tamp down expectations of more monetary policy easing, which might make it difficult to extend the rally.

Markets were recently rattled after Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke stopped short of giving a strong signal of more stimulus during congressional testimony.

Tidewater Inc's shares slumped 5.6 percent to $55.33 after the offshore vessels provider said Sonatide, its partnership with Angola's state oil company, will not take up new charters or extend existing ones in the country until the two parties resolve ongoing joint venture talks.

Youku Inc surged 29.6 percent to $32.41 after China's largest online video company said it will buy second-ranked Tudou Holdings Ltd in an all-stock deal valued at more than $1 billion. Tudou shot up 155 percent to $39.25.

(Editing by James Dalgleish)