Stocks End Flat on Xmas Eve

Stocks wrapped up Christmas Eve little changed Monday with early gains evaporating shortly before the closing bell as traders headed home to spend time with family after a tumultuous year for the market and the nation.

"If there is anything that is happening, it's people squaring off positions before year end," said Peter Gottlieb, a portfolio manager at First Albany Asset Management. "I don't think you can take anything from today's activity or lack of activity in the market."

Feather-light volume marked the start of a holiday-shortened week. The market shut early at 1 p.m. EST Monday. It will be closed Tuesday for Christmas. Many traders will opt to take a few extra days off this week — the last trading week of 2001 — to celebrate the holidays.

"I'm filling out Christmas cards and delivering booze to co-workers," said Chris Beyer, managing director of Nasdaq trading at SG Cowen Securities Inc. "It's such a quiet day."

Oil stocks like ExxonMobil Corp. eked out gains on bets the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, better known as OPEC, will cut output to boost weak oil prices. The shares of bomb-detection gear maker InVision Technologies Inc. and other security firms jumped after a man was caught allegedly trying to ignite explosives aboard a flight over the weekend.

The blue-chip Dow Jones industrial average ended unchanged at 10,035.34, after notching modest gains through much of the session. The broader Standard & Poor's 500 Index finished off 0.24 of point, or 0.02 percent, at 1,144.65. The technology-laced Nasdaq Composite Index slipped 1.35 points, or 0.07 percent, at 1,944.48.

Winners beat out losers on the New York Stock Exchange by a ratio of 17 to 12, and advancing stocks edged out decliners by 17 to 16 on Nasdaq. About 442 million shares changed hands on the Big Board, and 562.8 million shares traded on Nasdaq.

Stocks have surged late in the year, propelling the broad Standard & Poor's 500 index up more than 18 percent since the market slammed to three-year lows Sept. 21 in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States. Investors are betting the economy, mired in recession since March, will rebound by the middle of next year. The S&P 500, however, is still off more than 13 percent for the year.

The market's rally will be tested in the early part of January when the fourth-quarter confessional season — companies warning results will miss estimates — intensifies. Corporate earnings may suffer their worst drop of the year in the fourth quarter.

S&P 500 companies posted a 21.6 percent tumble in profits for the third quarter, marking the biggest drop in earnings since the last recession of 1991, according to Thomson Financial/First Call. Analysts are forecasting a drop of almost 21 percent in in the fourth quarter, but the research firm believes that number could widen to 22 percent.

U.S. oil prices rose Monday as OPEC, responsible for two-thirds of world oil exports, was expected to cut supplies by Jan. 1 to combat slumping demand. ExxonMobil, the world's largest publicly traded oil company, tacked on a 50-cent gain to $39. Oilfield services company Schlumberger Ltd. rose 84 cents to $53.10.

Security companies surged as Wall Street bet their products will be in demand as airports and the management of other public buildings beef up security. InVision jumped $4.20 to $32.71. OSI Systems Inc., which makes X-ray screening security machines, climbed $1.70 to $16.20. Face-recognition technology firm Viisage Technology Inc. rose 65 cents to $10.75.

Airline stocks fell after initial FBI tests showed the man who allegedly tried to blow up the flight carried explosive devices in his shoes, and authorities sought to determine whether he was connected to a wider plot. Some of the passengers on the American Airlines flight and crew members subdued the man.

AMR Corp., the parent of American Airlines, lost 70 cents to $21.19. U.S. Airways slipped 42 cents to $5.59. Delta Air Lines Inc. slumped 77 cents to $28.20. Southwest Airlines Co. fell 18 cents to $18.65.

"Obviously, everyone's concern is still hinging on security issues after the problems on the Paris flight — it's at the forefront of everyone's mind," Beyer said.

Retail stocks fell as Wall Street bet the holiday shopping season would prove disappointing. Analysts said even if markdowns and extended store hours boost store traffic, the discounts are so deep that prospects of a recovery in profits are dim.

Trendy clothing seller Gap Inc. shed 17 cents to $12.99, while discount retailer TJX Co. Inc. fell 53 cents to $37.87.

Schering-Plough Corp. rose 76 cents to $37.11 after U.S. regulators approved its Clarinex allergy drug, the successor to its blockbuster Claritin pill. Manufacturing problems had delayed approval of Clarinex for months.

Traders kept an eye on the latest economic turmoil in Argentina, fearing the unease could weigh on U.S. markets. The country's interim president canceled payment on public debt to try to ease poverty behind riots that toppled the previous government.

"You do have some fears with Argentina, but how much is unclear," said Chris Wasson, vice president of Nasdaq trading at Legg Mason Wood Walker Inc. "People aren't in the office to make any decisions."