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Stocks little changed as earnings fail to inspire investors

| Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2013, 4:36 p.m.

NEW YORK — Stocks were flat on Wall Street as the latest round of earnings reports failed to give investors an impetus to push the market's recent rally forward.

The Dow Jones industrial average rose 7.22 points to 13,986.52 on Wednesday, after trading slightly lower for most of the day. The Standard & Poor's 500 rose 0.83 point to 1,512.12. The Nasdaq composite was three points lower at 3,168.48

Time Warner rose $2.05, or 4.1 percent, to $52.01 because the company said its net income grew 51 percent in the last three months of 2012 even as revenue was largely unchanged.

Marathon Oil Corp. fell 32 cents, or 0.9 percent, to $34.40 because its fourth-quarter net income fell 41 percent on higher exploration costs and taxes.

Stocks are consolidating their gains after surging since the start of the year. The Dow closed above 14,000 for the first time since December 2007 on Friday and had its best January in almost two decades.

The index is up 6.7 percent this year; the broader S&P 500 is 6 percent higher.

“There's no question that we need to take a pause and let reality catch up,” said Jim Russell, an investment director at U.S. Bank.

The rally started when lawmakers reached a last-minute deal at New Year's to avoid the “fiscal cliff,” a series of steep tax increases and spending cuts that would have kicked in at the beginning of the year. The gains continued on optimism that the housing market recovery is gaining momentum and that the job market is healing.

While the budget deal reached in January dealt with tax increases, it didn't tackle spending cuts.

Automatic spending cuts, which would hit everything from Defense spending to popular benefit programs, were scheduled to take effect Jan. 1, but were postponed till March 1. Russell says stocks will be unlikely to rise strongly while talks heat up in Washington over the spending cuts, which are referred to as sequestration.

The rally has pushed stocks close to record levels.

The Dow is 178 points off its record close, reached in October 2007, and the S&P is 53 points below its all-time high, achieved in the same month.

“We've had a really nice move up here, whether we graduate to the next level, I think is questionable,” said Ben Schwarz, Chief Market Strategist at Light Speed Financial. “We're looking for something to spark it.”

More than half of the companies in the S&P 500 have reported earnings for the fourth quarter, and analysts are expecting earnings for the period to rise by 6 percent, according to data from S&P Capital IQ. That puts earnings growth on track to increase for the third consecutive quarter since slowing to 0.81 percent in the second quarter of 2012.

As investors have become more comfortable holding riskier assets like stocks, they have cut their holdings in defensive investments like U.S. government bonds, sending yields on those bonds higher.

The yield on the 10-year Treasury note, which moves inversely to its price, has risen more than 20 basis points since the start of the year and is trading close to its highest level since April.

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