US stocks rise, fall, rise again

NEW YORK (AP) ? The market struggled for direction early Friday, signaling what could be a disappointing end to an electrifying week.

The Dow Jones industrial average and the broader Standard & Poor’s 500 rose in the first half-hour of trading, then wavered between small gains and losses. Shortly before 11 a.m., the Dow was up 8 points to 13,261 and the S&P 500 was up two at 1,404. The Nasdaq composite index was down for most of the morning, then inched up three points to 3,059.

Bank of America led the Dow higher with a gain of 3.5 percent. Energy companies were the biggest gainers in the S&P 500 index. National Oilwell Varco rose 4.3 percent and Noble Corp., an oil and gas drilling services company, rose 4.4 percent. Whirlpool fell 2.7 percent, the most in the S&P.

Investors were weighing competing data about the U.S. economy. This week brought encouraging reports about the unemployment rate and retail sales, but Friday’s data was more subdued.

The University of Michigan’s closely watched consumer sentiment index came in lower compared to a month ago and below analysts’ expectations, driven by worries about gas prices.

Gas is currently $3.83 per gallon, on average, 31 cents more than a month ago. It has spiked as Iran’s continued nuclear program continues to sow tension in the Middle East. Some analysts also blame the Federal Reserve, which has pumped cheap money into the economy in an attempt to help it recover. That has also put pressure on the U.S. dollar. When the dollar falls in value, it takes more of them to buy the same amount of oil.

The Labor Department also noted that gas prices had soared 6 percent in February. However, other sectors showed milder inflation. Food prices, which had been rising, were unchanged for the first time in 19 months.

While the stock market is still up for the year, there’s disagreement over whether the underlying fundamentals of the economy are actually improving. Ziad Abdelnour, CEO of the private equity firm Blackhawk Partners, said that the supposedly encouraging data this week about jobs and retail sales was incremental and unconvincing, driving short-term surges but little else.

“It’s becoming so much of a sound bite economy,” Abdelnour said.

Abdelnour, who has been investing in commodities like oil, gas and water, worries over tension in the Middle East, the burgeoning deficit in the U.S., and uncertainty about the direction of the U.S. government.

“There are a lot of factors making me very uncomfortable about the stock market,” Abdelnour said. “I’m not optimistic at all.”

Apple, which released the iPad 3 Friday, fell 1 percent in early trading and then rose about 0.2 percent shortly before 11 a.m. It’s still up 44 percent for the year.

The market hit several key psychological milestones this week. While it’s debatable how much those markers mean, there’s no denying that they caused a stir.

On Tuesday, the Nasdaq closed above 3,000 for the first time since December 2000. On Thursday, the Standard & Poor’s 500 closed above 1,400 for the first time since June 2008. As of Thursday, the Dow had climbed for seven straight up days, its longest streak so far this year.

Markets in Europe were mostly up. Spain’s main index climbed despite a report signaling its debt load is growing heavier. Stocks in Germany, which has been one of the strongest euro countries throughout the debt crisis, rose after Chancellor Angela Merkel said she opposed a big increase in Europe’s financial rescue fund.