Stocks Flat Amid Oil, Election Worries; Dow Still at Year-Low

Stocks traded in a narrow range Monday, with the Dow remaining at its low for the year, as still high oil prices and a weaker U.S. dollar weighed on investors amid uncertainty over economic growth and the upcoming election.

The Dow Jones industrial average (search) fell 7.82 points, or 0.08 percent, to 9,749.99. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index (search) closed down 0.94 point, or 0.09 percent, at 1,094.80. The technology-laced Nasdaq Composite Index (searchended down 1.10 points, or 0.06 percent, at 1,914.04.

"For the first time, you're really starting to see companies mention oil in their earnings reports this quarter," said Chris Johnson, manager of quantitative analysis at Schaeffer's Investment Research in Cincinnati. "Up until now, high oil prices have been little more than a nuisance for investors. Now, it's shaping up to be a real problem."

While oil prices, which topped $55 per barrel for the first time last week, managed to fall somewhat Monday, many analysts believe they're still too high and will start to weigh heavily on the economy should they remain above $50. A barrel of light crude was quoted at $54.54, down 63 cents, on the New York Mercantile Exchange (search) after rising as high as $55.67.

The dollar slid to an eight-month low early Monday as foreign investors worried that the tight presidential race and the still-rising price of oil could further hurt the U.S. economy. Overseas stock markets fell sharply, and Wall Street extended its slide from last week.

A weaker dollar can dissuade overseas investors from buying U.S. stocks or bonds.

"The dollar has a relationship with oil and with how our economy is doing," said Paul Cherney, chief market analyst at Standard & Poor's. "It's almost a two-edged sword at the moment. You might say that foreign money managers who have dollar-denominated investments are hurting because of the move in the dollar. But it also might be an enticement to foreign money managers who do not have dollar-based investments here to take advantage of the conversion rate and convert from euros to dollars and buy assets here."

A strong report on home sales helped minimize the markets' losses. The National Association of Realtors said home sales rose 3.1 percent in September to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 6.75 million units, the third-highest showing ever, reversing two months of declines. The figure was better than the 6.54 million sales that economists had expected.

"The housing data came out and the market bumped up a little bit, but it didn't have a real lasting kind of impact," said Todd Leone, managing director of equity trading at SG Cowen Securities. "Today it's all about oil, and when the futures go down, stocks go up."

Despite oil futures falling, the uncertainty over the economy and the elections accentuated negative earnings reports, while overshadowing any good news. Telecommunications company BellSouth Corp. (BLS) saw its profits fall 14.6 percent in the third quarter on flat revenues, and the company missed Wall Street's profit forecasts by 2 cents per share. BellSouth slipped 13 cents to $26.42.

Consumer products maker Kimberly-Clark Corp. (KMB) fell $4.03 to $59.03 after it missed analysts' estimates by a penny per share, despite a 5 percent rise in profits.

Kellogg Co. (K) had better news, as the cereal and snack producer beat Wall Street expectations by 4 cents per share in the latest quarter and increased its profit forecasts for the rest of the year as well. Kellogg rose 74 cents to $43.15.

Chip stocks rose after brokerage Smith Barney upgraded its rating on the U.S. semiconductor sector to "overweight," dealers said.

Embattled insurance company Marsh & McLellan Cos. (MMC) fell 37 cents to $26.42 after media reports said the company's chief executive was stepping down in the wake of bid-rigging and fraud charges made by New York's attorney general. After the close of trading, the company announced that CEO Jeffrey Greenberg had indeed resigned.

News of a buyout sent International Steel Group Inc. (ISG) skyrocketing $5.57, or 18.8 percent, to $35.25. A privately-owned Dutch steelmaker said it would buy International Steel for about $4.5 billion in cash and stock. The combined company would be one of the largest steel companies in the world.

Trading was active, with 1.4 billion shares changing hands on the New York Stock Exchange, the same as the 1.4 billion daily average for last year. About 1.6 billion shares were traded on Nasdaq, just below the 1.69 billion daily average last year.

Advancers outnumbered decliners on the NYSE and Nasdaq by 8 to 7.

The Russell 2000 index of smaller companies was up 3.89, or 0.69 percent, at 571.67.

Overseas, Japan's Nikkei stock average fell 1.82 percent. In Europe, Britain's FTSE 100 closed down 1.1 percent, France's CAC-40 slid 2.05 percent for the session, and Germany's DAX index tumbled 2.12 percent.

Reuters and the Associated Press contributed to this report.