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Stocks flat in midday trading; oil creeps to $96

- Associated Press - Tuesday, August 28, 2012

NEW YORK (AP) — A mixed pair of economic reports kept the stock market hovering near the break-even mark Tuesday. One report on home prices looked encouraging, and another on consumer confidence was worrisome.

The price of a house increased in all major U.S. cities in June, according to the closely-watched Standard & Poor's/Case-Shiller home price index. The report was the latest sign that the housing market has been gaining strength.

"I thought it was terrific," said Phil Orlando, chief equity strategist at Federated Investors. "If you look at all of the key housing metrics over the past year — affordability, building permits, starts — all those numbers are pointing in the right direction."

The Dow Jones industrial average was up 12 points to 13,137 shortly after noon EDT. The Standard & Poor's 500 index inched up two points to 1,412, and the Nasdaq composite index gained seven points to 3,079.

The indexes dipped in morning trading after the Conference Board said its consumer confidence index fell to its lowest point since November 2011. Economists had expected a much higher reading. The index was 60.6, down from 65.4 in July.

That unexpected drop bolsters the case for the Federal Reserve to take more action to spur economic growth, said Chris Rupkey, chief financial economist at the Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi in New York, in a note to clients.

For economists and investors, the big event this week is Fed Chairman Ben S. Bernanke's speech at an annual conference in Jackson Hole, Wyo. Traders will sift through his speech Friday for evidence the Fed is readying more support.

Crude oil crept above $96 a barrel as Tropical Storm Isaac moved through the Gulf of Mexico. The National Hurricane Center predicted Isaac would grow to hurricane status. Roughly one-quarter of the country's oil is produced in the Gulf.

Worries over Europe resurfaced after one of Spain's largest regions, Catalonia, said it will ask the central government for $6.3 billion in rescue aid. Catalonia would be the third Spanish region to ask for help.

Borrowing costs for Spain and Italy jumped, and major stock indexes in Europe were mostly lower. Germany's DAX dropped 0.6 percent, while France's CAC 40 fell 0.8 percent.

Among other U.S. stocks making big moves:

• Lexmark International jumped 13 percent, the biggest gain in the S&P. Lexmark said that it will stop making ink-jet printers and plans to lay off 1,700 employees, nearly 13 percent of its work force. The company expects to shutter its ink-jet supply plant in the Philippines by the end of 2015. Lexmark's stock jumped $2.53 to $21.54.

• The world's top ketchup maker, H.J. Heinz, gained 3 percent. The company's CEO said strong sales in Brazil, Indonesia and other developing countries should help quarterly earnings beat Wall Street's expectations. The Pittsburgh company reports results Wednesday. Its stock rose 41.70 to $58.16.

• Sanderson Farms soared 8 percent after the poultry company swung to a quarterly profit. Higher prices for chicken parts, from boneless breasts to jumbo wings, pushed both profits and revenue above analysts' estimates. Sanderson Farms' stock surged $3.38 to $43.97.

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