NEW YORK – Wall Street wandered through a listless session Monday, finishing little changed as investors cast aside upbeat earnings at Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (WMT) and Lowe's Cos. (LOW) ahead of critical inflation and spending data later this week.
Strong results from Wal-Mart and Lowe's came as a sign that consumers are still spending despite the recent spike in energy costs, brightening the holiday sales outlook. A pair of multibillion-dollar acquisitions also helped the market's mood: Georgia-Pacific Corp. (GP) is being taken private and Host Marriott Corp. (HMR) is buying 38 upscale hotels.
But with key government data on inflation and retail sales due this week, investors are waiting for indications of whether higher costs are driving up prices on consumer goods, said John Forelli, portfolio manager at Independence Investments LLC.
"Now that gas prices have come down, there's more confidence that inflation will be kept at bay," Forelli said. "But I'm not sure the market is really going to believe that until the (Federal Reserve) says so."
Forecasts for a cold snap in the Northeast pressured crude oil despite recent reports that U.S. supplies are adequate for increased demand this winter. A barrel of light crude gained 16 cents to $57.69 on the New York Mercantile Exchange.
According to preliminary calculations, the Dow Jones industrial average rose 11.13, or 0.1 percent, to 10,697.17.
Broader stock indicators were lower. The Standard & Poor's 500 index fell 0.96, or 0.08 percent, to 1,233.76, and the Nasdaq composite index lost 1.52, or 0.07 percent, to 2,200.95.
Bonds declined after an auction last week catapulted them from eight-month lows, with the yield on the 10-year Treasury note rising to 4.61 percent from 4.56 percent last Thursday. The dollar was mixed against other major currencies, and gold prices slipped.
Wall Street is coming off a three-week advance fed by lower oil prices and positive economic numbers, which have eased fears about the impact of recent hurricanes. But persistent inflation and interest rate worries have investors scouring for any hint of the economy's health. This week's economic data should determine if the market's recent rally will continue, said Richard Dickson, chief market strategist of Lowry's Research Reports.
"I think (the market) has more to go," Dickson said. "Particularly if the market reacts well to all the data this week, it will give people who've been sitting on the sidelines a reason to get in.
"The reaction to those numbers should give us a better indication of what the remainder of the fourth quarter has in store," he added.
Meanwhile, investors weighed comments from Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan, who warned that the nation's trade deficit cannot grow wider but said any fallout should be countered by the economy's flexibility. Many fear that foreigners — who finance the trade deficit — will grow wary of dollar-denominated investments and unload U.S. stocks and bonds.
Koch Industries Inc. has offered to buy Georgia-Pacific for $13.2 billion in cash, forming the nation's largest private company with annual sales of about $80 billion. Georgia-Pacific jumped $12.63 to $47.28.
Host Marriott is paying Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide Inc. (HOT) $3.3 billion to acquire 38 domestic and overseas properties under the Westin, Sheraton, W Hotel, Luxury Collection and St. Regis banners. Host Marriott slid 79 cents to $16.65, while Starwood rose 76 cents to $60.02.
Knight-Ridder Inc. (KRI), the nation's No. 2 newspaper publisher, said it may put itself on the auction block after facing pressure from its largest stockholders. Knight-Ridder added 60 cents to $63.10.
In earnings news, Wal-Mart reported a 4 percent increase in third-quarter profit — matching analysts' expectations — with sales adding 10 percent despite the setback dealt by hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma. Wal-Mart gained 30 cents to $49.30.
Lowe's said its earnings swelled 26 percent and beat Wall Street estimates by 4 cents per share, helped by 17 percent sales growth. Lowe's climbed $2.92 to $64.89.
Tyson Foods Inc. (TSN), the world's biggest meat and poultry producer, posted a 49 percent jump in quarterly profit. However, its results were below expectations and the company issued a weak annual outlook. Tyson sank $1.99 to $16.51.
Declining issues outpaced advancers by 5 to 3 on the New York Stock Exchange, where volume of 1.4 billion shares topped the 1.29 billion shares traded at the same point Friday.
The Russell 2000 index of smaller companies dropped 2.73, or 0.41 percent, to 663.93.
Overseas, Japan's Nikkei stock average lost 0.28 percent. Britain's FTSE 100 rose 0.09 percent, Germany's DAX index gained 0.03 percent, and France's CAC-40 was higher by 0.26 percent.