NEW YORK – Stocks ended barely changed Monday in very light trading, staying close to the 2004 lows hit last week, as oil prices resumed their climb and investors were wary of jumping into the market before Tuesday's Federal Reserve meeting on interest rates.
The Dow Jones industrial average (search) fell 0.67 point, or 0.01 percent, at 9,814.66. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index (search) rose 1.25 points, or 0.12 percent, at 1,065.22. The technology-laced Nasdaq Composite Index (search) lost 2.25 points, or 0.13 percent, at 1,774.64.
Trading was very light in advance of Tuesday's Fed meeting, at which the Federal Open Market Committee (search) will decide whether to raise interest rates by a quarter percentage point to 1.5 percent. While the move had been widely expected before last week, a string of bad news has left Wall Street wondering whether the Fed will — or should — raise the benchmark rate.
The markets sold off heavily last week as oil prices climbed to new highs and the government reported a paltry 32,000 jobs created in July. The combination left investors concerned that inflation might take hold in an economy that threatens to slow down considerably.
"Everyone is waiting to see what the Fed is going to do. Are they really going to raise by a quarter point? Or if they don't raise, then people will say, what do they see that we don't see?" said Victor Pugliese, managing director at First Albany Corp.
"It's a double-edged sword," he added.
Following Friday's disappointing jobs report, investors now expect the pace of rate rises to ease from what the Fed had already signaled would be a "measured" clip. An announcement is expected about 2:15 p.m. .
The Fed raised interest rates in June to 1.25 percent, its first move upward in four years. Investors will scrutinize the accompanying language for clues as to what the Fed may do in the future.
Even the bargain hunters couldn't withstand the overall pessimism of the market, as a wave of late-session selling erased the market's modest gains from early in the session. Investors were particularly concerned with oil prices, which climbed once again as Russian oil giant Yukos encountered fresh problems. A barrel of light crude was quoted at $44.84, up 89 cents, on the New York Mercantile Exchange (search). Prices hit a new record high at $44.98 earlier in the session.
Meanwhile, the government reported that wholesale inventories rose 1.1 percent in June. Wall Street had been expecting a 0.6 percent rise for the month. While the inventory figure shows strong industrial productivity, it also raises questions on whether supply may soon outpace a reduced consumer demand.
The S&P Integrated Oil & Gas index , which includes all three of these firms, rose 1.12 percent.
Charter Communications Inc. (CHTR) slipped a penny to $3.07 after posting a loss of $1.35 per share for the quarter. The media company assumed new pre-tax losses that it previously applied to a subsidiary.
Citigroup (C) shares were higher after the world's No. 1 financial services company announced it will buy Knight Trading Group Inc.'s (NITE) derivatives business for $225 million in cash. Citigroup's stock rose 28 cents to $43.47 on the New York Stock Exchange. Knight rose 47 cents, or 5.67 percent, at $8.76.
Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (WMT) was another boost to the market after it said August sales were meeting expectations, thanks to back-to-school demand. It was up 4 cents to $51.37.
Cablevision Systems Corp. (CVC) swung to a loss in the second quarter due to investment losses and poor performance in its satellite and cinema divisions. The company did improve its outlook, however. Cablevision fell 46 cents to $16.68.
McDonald's Corp. (MCD) was down 18 cents at $26.16 despite posting a 6.4 percent rise in same-store sales in July, crediting the boost on better menu options for healthy eating and better service.
Department store chain Dillard's (DDS) rose after it said Sunday that it will sell its Dillard's National Bank assets to GE Consumer Finance for about $1.25 billion. It was up $1.04, or 4.8 percent, to $22.52.
Trading was extremely light, with 1.09 billion shares changing hands on the New York Stock Exchange, well below the 1.4 billion daily average for last year. About 1.26 billion shares were traded on Nasdaq, also sharply below the 1.69 billion daily average last year.
Decliners slightly outnumbered advancers on the NYSE. Decliners beat advancers by about 3 to 2 on Nasdaq.
The Russell 2000 index of smaller companies was down 1.27, or 0.2 percent, at 518.38.
Overseas, Japan's Nikkei stock average fell 0.6 percent. In Europe, Britain's FTSE 100 closed down 0.5 percent, France's CAC-40 dropped 0.9 percent for the session and Germany's DAX index tumbled 1 percent.
Reuters and the Associated Press contributed to this report.