- Associated Press - Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Stocks barely budged Wednesday, letting investors hold on to their gains from a strong opening to the year a day earlier.

Strong December sales boosted carmakers and specialty retailers. Banks, health care companies, and utilities fell slightly. But nothing moved much.

The Dow Jones industrial average edged up 21.04 points, or 0.2 percent, to close at 12,418.42. The Dow opened the year with a 180-point gain Tuesday, which brought it to the highest level since July.

“It’s healthy to see that after a big rally,” said Randy Warren, chief investment officer for Warren Financial Service. “People need to sit back and think about it.”

The Standard & Poor’s 500 index and Nasdaq were nearly flat. The S&P inched up 0.24 point to close at 1,277.30. The Nasdaq fell 0.36 point to 2,648.36.

Specialty stores such as Bed Bath & Beyond rose on a report that mall shopping was strong in the week after Christmas. Retailing industry stocks rose 0.8 percent. A trade group estimated that after-Christmas sales rose 5.3 percent compared with a year ago. Bed Bath & Beyond Inc. rose 1.8 percent, and Ross Stores Inc., which sells discounted clothes, rose 0.7 percent.

Big-box retailers fell. Analysts have been concerned that some stores raised holiday sales with deep discounts that will hurt profits. Wal-Mart Stores Inc. fell 1.1 percent, making it the second-biggest decliner among the Dow’s 30 stocks. Target Corp. fell 2.2 percent and Kohl’s Corp. fell 1.4 percent.

Automakers delivered a strong end to 2011. Analysts had been expecting December to be a strong sales month for cars on the theory that more confidence in the economy would unlock pent-up demand. Ford Motor Co. rose 1.5 percent, and General Motors Co. rose 0.5 percent after those two companies and Chrysler reported strong increases in December and full-year sales.

Visa Inc. fell 1.8 percent and MasterCard Inc. fell 3.3 percent. Janney analysts downgraded both to “Neutral” from “Buy” and predicted that U.S. consumers will continue to reduce debt.

Netflix Inc. soared 11 percent, the most in the S&P 500, after the DVD-by-mail and online video company said its customers streamed more than two billion hours of video during the fourth quarter. It was some welcome good news from a company that has had several missteps, including a failed plan to split the DVD and video streaming business.

Ryan Detrick, senior technical analyst with Schaeffer’s Investment Research, said it’s good to see stock prices hold onto gains after a strong start to the year on Tuesday.

“At least thus far in 2012 we haven’t followed the path of 2011, where if it’s a good day, there’s a bad day right away,” he said. “The recent trend is clearly to give back what you get just as fast.”

The yield on 10-year Treasury Notes briefly popped above 2 percent, although it fell to 1.99 percent in the afternoon. Yields have been falling over the past year as investors loaded up on low-risk investments. A rise in yields suggests that investors are more willing to take risks by parking money elsewhere in exchange for higher rewards.

Gold prices rose $12.20, or 0.8 percent, to $1,612.70 per ounce. Oil prices rose 26 cents to $103.2.

European markets declined, and the euro fell back below $1.30, to $1.2945, within a penny of its lowest level in a year. Another increase in Italy’s borrowing costs renewed worries about Europe’s efforts to restore confidence in its debt-hobbled governments.

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