U.S. stocks meandered between small gains and losses Monday, cooling off after a rally that had pushed the Standard & Poor's 500 index above 1,500 for the first time since December 2007. Encouraging news about manufacturing provided an early boost, but stocks fell later after a report on the pace of home sales fell short of expectations.
The government said before trading began that orders for long-lasting goods rose in December by 4.6 percent, helped by a 10 percent gain in orders for new aircraft. The report was a sign of strength for the manufacturing sector, a crucial driver of economic growth.
Heavy equipment maker Caterpillar said separately that its fourth-quarter net income exceeded analysts' expectations, after adjusting for the cost of a soured deal to buy a Chinese maker of roofing supports for mines. Caterpillar said it took a big charge in the quarter because the Chinese company had misrepresented its finances.
Caterpillar Inc. said it expects growth in China to improve without regaining the levels seen in 2010 or 2011. The stock was the biggest gainer in the Dow Jones industrial average, closing up $1.87, or 2 percent, at $97.45.
The Dow Jones transportation index, a proxy for future economic activity, edged higher, notching its tenth straight increase and its twelfth gain in the past 13 trading days.
A half-hour after trading began, the National Association of Realtors said that its index of pending home sales fell in December, suggesting that sales of previously occupied homes may slow in the coming months. The report, which was weaker than many economists had expected, helped push stocks lower for much of the morning. They were roughly flat by midday, and spent the afternoon swapping small bumps and dips.
The Dow closed down 14.05 points, or 0.1 percent, at 13,881.93. The S&P 500 fell 2.78, or 0.2 percent, to 1,500.18. The Nasdaq composite index added 4.59, or 0.2 percent, to 3,154.
The Dow and the S&P 500 are rapidly approaching their all-time closing highs, reached on Oct. 9, 2007. The Dow is about 282 points below its high of 14,164.53; the S&P 500 is 65 points shy of its record of 1,565.
Economic data may be less likely to boost the indexes because traders have become harder to impress as the data have strengthened in recent weeks, said Bill Stone, chief investment strategist with PNC Asset Management Group.
"Before, even if you came in just at expectations, that was like a victory," he said. Because of the market's recent upturn, he said, "you get less of a pop for just making the numbers."
Among companies in the S&P 500 that reported earnings Monday, Biogen Idec Inc. said its fourth-quarter net income slipped nearly 3 percent because of a tax charge and higher expenses. Still, the biotech drug maker rose $3.79, or 2.6 percent, to $149.99.
Roper Industries Inc., which makes medical and industrial equipment, said its fourth-quarter net income rose 18 percent. But the company issued mixed guidance for the current quarter and full year 2013. It fell 33 cents to $118.50.