NEW YORK – U.S. stocks ended little changed on Thursday as cautious investors pulled back before expected upheaval from next week's elections and a likely announcement of more stimulus from the Federal Reserve.
Next week could bring significant shifts in both monetary policy and legislative direction, leading investors to largely disregard earnings and economic reports.
A notable exception was manufacturer 3M Co (MMM.N), which dropped 5.9 percent to $85.07 and pulled the Dow lower after it trimmed its outlook due to costs from recent acquisitions.
"Perhaps this is going to be a 'buy the rumor, sell the news' kind of deal where we have had the rally in anticipation of all these things," said Phil Orlando, chief equity market strategist at Federated Investors, referring to the Fed and Tuesday's elections.
"Now that we are about to cross the threshold, maybe we are getting a little toppy here and we need to consolidate some of those gains."
A look at broad market exchange-traded funds suggested investors were becoming more cautious. Premiums for November out-of-the-money puts outweighed equally spaced call contracts for most instruments.
Overall U.S. put volume rose 21.3 percent on Wednesday while the CBOE Volatility Index (.VIX) rose for the fourth consecutive session.
The Dow Jones industrial average (.DJI) dropped 12.33 points, or 0.11 percent, to 11,113.95. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index (.SPX) gained 1.33 points, or 0.11 percent, to 1,183.78. The Nasdaq Composite Index (.IXIC) added 4.11 points, or 0.16 percent, to 2,507.37.
Closing was delayed for 58 NYSE stocks following a hardware recovery.
Microsoft Corp (MSFT.O) gained 3.1 percent to $27.09 in extended-hours trading after it posted a 51 percent jump in quarterly profit after Thursday's close.
During the session, Halliburton Co (HAL.N) tumbled 8 percent to $31.68 after a White House panel said the contractor, which cemented the blown-out Macondo well, ignored cement design flaws weeks before the disaster that sparked the worst U.S. offshore oil spill.
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Thursday's session also brought about a weakening in the recent inverse correlation between stocks and the dollar for the second time this week, as stocks slipped while the dollar index (.DXY) shed 1.1 percent against major currencies.
Stocks received an early boost from the weak dollar and after data showed new weekly claims for unemployment benefits fell unexpectedly, giving an encouraging reading on the labor market.
Anticipation of a Fed move has driven recent market action as investors speculated over the size and timing of further stimulus. Equity investors have bet that more easing will invigorate an economic recovery and lift asset prices. Since September, the S&P 500 has risen 12.8 percent.
Most leading economists expected the Fed to buy between $80 billion and $100 billion in assets per month under a new program to bolster the struggling economy, a Reuters poll found.
Volume was light, with about 7.4 billion shares traded on the New York Stock Exchange, the American Stock Exchange and Nasdaq, below last year's estimated daily average of 9.65 billion.
Advancing stocks outnumbered declining ones on the NYSE by 1,498 to 1,442, while on the Nasdaq, decliners beat advancers by about four to three.