Equities were little changed for much of the session, with investors finding few reasons to make big bets following an extended rally on Wall Street, but stocks turned lower in afternoon action.
Wal-Mart Stores Inc (>> Wal-Mart Stores, Inc.) dropped 2.1 percent to $69.30 after Bloomberg News reported a weak start to February sales, citing internal company e-mails. The stock was the biggest decliner on the Dow, while the S&P retail index <.SPXRT> fell 0.5 percent.
"When a retailer of this size comes out with this kind of lousy news, the whole market can fall off, especially on a Friday afternoon," said Mike Shea, trader at Direct Access Partners in New York. "However, I'm not worried that this is indicative of any larger macro issue with retail."
Equities have struggled for direction recently, with major indexes moving only slightly in the past several sessions. The S&P didn't end a session with a move greater than 0.2 percent at all this week.
The benchmark index, up 6.6 percent so far this year, is facing strong technical resistance near the 1,525 level. But investors, expecting the index to advance further in the quarter, have held back from locking in profits.
"There's no news that suggests the strong underpinning for stocks isn't appropriate. We may have gotten ahead of ourselves, but there's also an absence of bad news," said Mark Luschini, chief investment strategist at Janney Montgomery Scott in Philadelphia.
Many investors are starting to look ahead to a debate in Washington over sequestration, automatic across-the-board spending cuts put in place as part of a larger congressional budget fight. The cuts are due to kick in March 1 unless lawmakers agree to an alternative.
"This had been far enough out to not yet become an impediment for stocks, but it will start to move into the forefront and cause people to take a bit of a jaundiced eye towards the market," said Luschini, who helps oversee about $54 billion in assets.
The Dow Jones industrial average <.DJI> was up 11.27 points, or 0.08 percent, at 13,984.66. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index <.SPX> was up 0.32 points, or 0.02 percent, at 1,521.70. The Nasdaq Composite Index <.IXIC> was up 1.51 points, or 0.05 percent, at 3,200.17.
For the week, both the Dow and Nasdaq fell 0.1 percent while the S&P rose 0.1 percent in its seventh straight week of gains, a period during which the index rose 8.4 percent. The last such seven-week run was between December 2010 and January 2011.
The New York Federal Reserve said manufacturing in New York state expanded for the first time in seven months, while Thomson Reuters/University of Michigan's preliminary reading of consumer sentiment rose from the prior month and beat expectations.
But U.S. manufacturing fell in January after a rise in the prior month.
Wall Street's gain thus far in 2013 has largely been driven by strong corporate earnings, while data indicated some weakening in economic conditions.
A surge in merger and acquisition activity, with more than $158 billion in deals announced so far in 2013, has given further support to the equity market as it points to healthy valuations and bets on the economic outlook.
Herbalife (>> Herbalife Ltd.) shares cut earlier gains to rise 1.2 percent to $38.74. Late Thursday, billionaire investor Carl Icahn said in a regulatory filing that he now owns 13 percent of Herbalife and was ready to put it in play.
MeadWestvaco Corp (>> MeadWestvaco Corp.) climbed 12.5 percent to $35.65 as the biggest percentage gainer on the S&P index after activist investor Nelson Peltz's Trian Fund Management LP said it had bought about 1.6 million shares of the packaging company.
Burger King Worldwide (>> Burger King Worldwide Inc) shares gained 4.7 percent to $17.36 after it beat estimates with a 94 percent rise in fourth-quarter profit, thanks to new menu additions.
Oil service stocks declined, weighed by a 5.1 percent drop in shares of Transocean <RIG.N> to $56.26, after the rig contractor reported its fleet update and Deutsche Bank cut its rating on the stock to "sell." The PHLX oil service sector <.OSX> lost 1.5 percent.
Slightly more stocks fell than rose on the New York Stock Exchange while about 50 percent of Nasdaq shares ended lower. About 6.69 billion shares changed hands on the New York Stock Exchange, the Nasdaq and NYSE MKT, above the daily average so far this year of about 6.48 billion shares.
(Editing by Nick Zieminski)
By Ryan Vlastelica