Stocks Mixed Ahead of Earnings

Stocks closed narrowly mixed Monday as investors looked past rising oil prices and awaited a sample of first-quarter earnings from Alcoa Inc. (AA) after the closing bell.

There were no new economic reports to feed the market's obsession with whether the Federal Reserve will extend its series of interest rate hikes to fight inflation. Recent trading has been skittish amid investors' split opinions on how much growth the economy can manage.

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A fresh rise in crude oil pushed futures above $68 a barrel, as the market grew nervous about mounting political tension over Iran's nuclear arms program. A barrel of light crude jumped $1.35 to settle at $68.74 on the New York Mercantile Exchange.

"I think one of the conundrums the market faces is that we continue to see energy prices go higher," said Arthur Hogan, chief market analyst for Jefferies & Co. "It's going to be hard to get the market to rally much this week with oil starting at $68."

Hogan said the weakening bond market may also hinder investors' confidence, but added that Wall Street could see a lift from a solid corporate earnings. Alcoa led the way with a sharply better-than-expected quarterly profit.

According to preliminary calculations, the Dow Jones industrial average rose 21.29, or 0.19 percent, to 11,141.33, after gaining as much as 65 points earlier in the day.

Broader stock indicators were narrowly mixed. The Standard & Poor's 500 index added 1.12, or 0.09 percent, to 1,296.62, and the Nasdaq composite index fell 5.75, or 0.25 percent, to 2,333.27.

Bonds were flat following last week's plunge, with the yield on the benchmark 10-year Treasury note unchanged at 4.96 percent from late Friday. The dollar was mostly lower against most major currencies; gold prices lingered near a 25-year high of $600 per ounce.

Investors will get their fill of economic data later this week, when reports on import prices, retail sales and consumer confidence are due. Analysts have said those numbers are critical for assessing how consumers feel about the economy as interest rates and energy prices rise.

But strong earnings in the latest quarter could revive Wall Street's energy since many analysts had set low expectations, said Susan Malley, chief investment officer of Malley Associates Capital Management. General Electric Co. (GE) is also scheduled to report results later this week before the earnings season begins in earnest next week.

"We started the year thinking estimates were too low," Malley said. "I think that's going to show itself this season, and that's a very positive thing."

Aluminum producer Alcoa is considered the first major U.S. firm to release its quarterly results. The company earned 69 cents per share on $7.24 billion of revenue, topping the average view of 51 cents per share on $7.21 billion in revenue from analysts polled by Thomson Financial. Alcoa rose 33 cents to close $32.83, but fell 3 cents in after-hours trading.

Bank of New York Corp. is swapping its 338 New York-area branches for JPMorgan Chase & Co.'s (JPM) corporate trust unit and an additional $150 million in cash. JPMorgan gained 18 cents to $41.888, while Bank of New York lost $1.79 to $35.04.

Red Hat Inc. surged $2.42 to $29.85 after saying it agreed to acquire fellow software maker JBoss for $350 million in stock and cash, with potential for up to $70 million in future performance payments.

Walt Disney Co. (DIS), parent of ABC and Disney Channel, said it will make its four top television shows available free on the Internet, beginning in May. Disney added 26 cents to $27.79.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (WMT) is facing a wave of opposition to its recent bank application with the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., but the company said it intends only to process electronic transactions in house and does not want to open retail branches. Wal-Mart slid 32 cents to $45.70.

Declining issues led advancers by more than 9 to 7 on the New York Stock Exchange, where volume of 1.35 billion shares fell behind the 1.54 billion shares changing hands at the same point Friday.

The Russell 2000 index of smaller companies dropped 3.18, or 0.42 percent, to 752.95.

Overseas, Japan's Nikkei stock average rose 0.3 percent. Britain's FTSE 100 added 0.68 percent, Germany's DAX index gained 0.85 percent and France's CAC-40 was higher by 0.30 percent.

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