NEW YORK – U.S. stocks ended the last session of a turbulent quarter little changed Friday as word the United States had imposed duties on some Chinese imports offset strong economic news and a pullback in oil prices.
The Dow Jones industrial average finished up 5.60 points, or 0.05 percent, at 12,354.35. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index slipped 1.67 points, or 0.12 percent, to 1,420.86. The Nasdaq Composite Index inched up 3.76 points, or 0.16 percent, to close at 2,421.64.
Shares of Caterpillar Inc. (CAT) led the Dow's slight advance with a 1.27 percent rise after a broker recommended the stock. This overshadowed declines in shares of other manufacturers, including General Electric Co. and Boeing (BA) Co., that have stakes in China's economy.
"Any friction you put in international trade is going to end up distorting price levels," said Joseph Battipaglia, chief investment officer for Ryan, Beck & Co., brokerage and research firm in Philadelphia.
"And if you are now trying to get aggressive on Chinese (domestic) subsidy policies by using the weapon of tariffs, which is a fairly blunt instrument, you could have unforeseen consequences," he added.
For the week, the Dow ended down 1.01 percent, Nasdaq closed down 1.11 percent and the S&P ended down 1.06 percent.
For the month, the Dow ended up 0.70 percent, Nasdaq closed up 0.23 percent and the S&P ended up 1 percent.
For the quarter, the Dow ended down 0.87 percent, while Nasdaq closed up 0.26 percent and the S&P ended up 0.18 percent. The quarter marked Wall Street's worst first quarter in two years.
The Nasdaq's net move was the smallest quarterly move for the index, in either direction, in at least 27 years.
The quarter saw bouts of increased volatility, with investors worrying that problems in the subprime mortgage market may seep into the broader economy and hurt profits.
Stocks had risen briskly earlier after a series of economic reports, including February consumer spending, suggested strength in the economy, while at the same time reducing the chances of an imminent cut in U.S. interest rates by the Federal Reserve
Shares of diversified manufacturer GE (GE) ended down 0.53 percent, or 19 cents, at $35.36 on the New York Stock Exchange, while shares of plane maker Boeing dropped 0.95 percent, or 85 cents, to end at $88.91.
But investors snapped up shares of telecommunications companies, including AT&T, to burnish their portfolios with stocks in one of the first quarter's best-performing sectors.
AT&T (T) shares ended up 0.66 percent, or 26 cents, at $39.43 on the NYSE. The stock was the biggest gainer on the S&P 500, and among the Dow's top five positive influences. The S&P Telecom Services index rose 0.55 percent on the session and was up 6.4 percent on the quarter.
But Exxon Mobil Corp. (XOM) shares slipped 1.04 percent, or 79 cents, to $75.45, on the NYSE as investors booked profits following the energy sector's recent run-up amid higher crude oil prices.
On the New York Mercantile Exchange, crude for May delivery
settled ended down for the first time in nine sessions, dipping 16 cents, or 0.24 percent, to close at $65.87 a barrel. For the day, May crude traded between $65.51 and $66.78. Crude oil prices have risen nearly 17 percent since March 19.
Reversing a decades-old policy of not applying duties to subsidized goods from non-market economies, the U.S. Commerce Department said Friday it was slapping duties of 10.9 percent to 20.35 percent on imports of coated paper from China.
A trade dispute with China could hurt U.S. exports by making them more expensive in foreign markets and make imports to the United States pricier, adding to inflationary pressures.