By PALLAVI GOGOI, Associated Press
NEW YORK (AP) — Shoppers are starting to spend, but business owners aren't so sure their customers will keep coming back.
These conflicting signals confused investors, who first bought stocks and then sold them as the day progressed Tuesday. It didn't help that there were fewer stock traders in the market as is common during the summer months, which led to lower than usual trading volume.
The Dow Jones industrial average closed up 2.71 points at 13,172.14. It was up as much as 53 points at midday. The broader Standard & Poor's 500 index lost 0.18 point to 1,403.93 and the Nasdaq composite index fell 5.54 points to 3,016.98.
Earlier, investors were energized by a surprise gain in retail sales in July. That report provided evidence that American shoppers are still spending even as their counterparts in Europe and Asia slow down.
However, another report showed that U.S. companies weren't restocking their shelves or their warehouses fast enough, a signal that they believed shoppers weren't going to continue spending.
U.S. retail sales rose in July by the largest amount in five months as Americans spent more on cars, furniture and clothes. The 0.8 percent gain was better than analysts were expecting and showed that U.S. consumers spend at stores after cutting back in the April to June period.
JJ Kinahan, a strategist at online broker TD Ameritrade, said the increase wasn't enough to justify a significant upward move in the stock market.
"Consumers are still cautious," Kinahan said. "Even numbers that are marginally better look good when compared to a trough."
Investors did sell low-risk assets, sending the yield on the benchmark 10-year Treasury note up to 1.73 percent from 1.66 percent late Monday.
Stocks were held back by a report that U.S. companies barely increased their inventories in June. The slower restocking trend could act as a drag on overall economic growth. When businesses place fewer orders, factory production slows.
"The data points to the fact that the economy is stabilizing at a lower level," said Peter Cardillo, chief market economist at investment bank Rockwell Global Capital. "While the economy isn't slipping further, it leaves open the possibility of the Fed's support for the economy to grow at a better rate."
Many economists believe the Federal Reserve will try to stimulate the economy by launching another program of buying government bonds and mortgage-backed securities to keep interest rates low. They will be closely watching Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke's speech on Aug. 31 at an annual economic conference in Jackson Hole, Wyo.
With most European leaders and Washington away on vacation, there hasn't been much news to move the market. In the last seven trading days the Dow's biggest move was a 51-point gain on Aug. 7. As is typical of late summer months, trading volumes have also been light, averaging between two and three billion shares a day, as opposed to four and five billion during the rest of the year.
Home Depot jumped $1.89 to $54.71. The world's biggest home-improvement retailer posted a 12 percent jump in net income and increased its earnings forecast for the entire year. Home Depot's fortunes are closely tied to the housing market, which has been improving. On Thursday, the Department of Commerce releases the housing starts and building permits report for July.
The number of declining stocks narrowly outpaced rising ones on the New York Stock Exchange. Trading volume was very light at 2.9 billion shares.
Among other stocks that also made big moves:
— Groupon plummeted 27 percent. The online coupon company's stock closed at an all-time low of $5.51, down $2.04 after its sales growth fell short of expectations partly due to worsening conditions in Europe.
— Estee Lauder rose $5.12, or 9 percent, to $60.13. The beauty company, whose brands include MAC and Aveda, reported results that topped Wall Street expectations. The company also raised its revenue forecast for the year.
— NCR Corp. fell close to 10 percent following allegations that the ATM maker has violated sanctions and a federal corruption law by operating a subsidiary in Syria and working with blacklisted banks in the country. NCR's stock was off $2.47 at $22.65.
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.