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Stocks Mixed on First Day of Earnings Season

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Flickr User Douglas LeMoine

Stocks wandered between small gains and losses Monday as traders looked ahead to Alcoa Inc.’s fourth-quarter results, the unofficial start of corporate earnings season.

Alcoa will release its financial results after the market closes. The global aluminum company is seen as an economic bellwether because many industries use its products.

Alcoa’s stock rose 2.2 percent, the most of the 30 stocks in the Dow Jones industrial average. Alcoa fell 2.1 percent on Friday after the company said it will reduce its smelting capacity by 12 percent by closing smelters in the U.S. and Europe. An analyst predicted that Alcoa will post its first quarterly loss since the recession.

The Dow rose 5 points to 12,364 as of 12:20 p.m. Eastern time. Slower growth in Europe and emerging economies likely limited profit growth for U.S. multinational companies in the October-December period, analysts say. Materials companies such as Alcoa are suffering as construction slows in emerging markets such as China, whose recent construction booms fueled demand for metals and similar products.

“China, India, Latin America — that’s where those companies have been really driving sales in the last few quarters,” said John Butters, senior earnings analyst at FactSet. “That’s probably why you see (earnings expectations) for basic materials companies down quite a bit.” He said investors should pay close attention to what companies say about their sales overseas.

However, analysts with S&P Capital IQ said rising market prices should offset lower demand for producers of some materials such as steel, industrial gasses, chemicals. Profits might decline since the third quarter, but they those sub-industries will likely do better than in the same quarter a year earlier, the analysts said in a research note.

In other trading, the Standard & Poor’s 500 index fell a fraction. The Nasdaq composite index dropped 2 points, or 0.1 percent, to 2,671.

The Nasdaq is now up 2.6 percent for the year, compared to 1.2 percent for the Dow and 1.6 percent for the S&P 500.

Fourth-quarter earnings growth for companies in the S&P 500 increased only modestly over 2010, after sharp increases in the first three quarters of 2011, analysts said. Companies had an easier time improving on their results from 2009, when the nation was just emerging from recession.

European markets fell in late trading as French and German leaders met to craft the regional fiscal treaty that they agreed to pursue last year. It was their first crisis summit of 2012, after numerous such events last year.

The treaty would strengthen oversight of spending by countries that use the euro. Excessive borrowing by nations such as Greece and Italy is has hurt the broader European economy weakened stronger nations such as Germany and France.

The French and German leaders stressed that they view boosting growth a priority, despite widespread spending cuts that are expected to slow economic activity in the region. France’s CAC 40 closed down 0.3 percent; Germany’s DAX and London’s FTSE lose 0.7 percent.

In corporate news:

– CareFusion Corp. plunged 8 percent, the most in the S&P 500 index. The San Diego-based medical device maker announced preliminary results that were weaker than analysts had expected.

– Inhibitex Inc. soared 141 percent after Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. said over the weekend that it would buy the Alpharetta, Ga. maker of hepatitis C medicine for $2.5 billion. Other developers of hepatitis C treatments also rallied sharply. Idenix Pharmaceuticals Inc. jumped 31 percent and Achillion Pharmaceuticals Inc. rose 16 percent.

– Netflix Inc. rose 7.5 percent. The video streaming and DVD-by-mail company said it was launching its service in the United Kingdom and Ireland. The stock is up 28 percent so far this year, the most in the S&P 500. It lost 61 percent last year after the company raised prices and tried to separate its streaming and DVD businesses.

(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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