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Stocks mixed as week ends

With a report on the new-home front, jitters returned about how consumers might spend.

NEW YORK - Stocks finished an erratic week narrowly mixed yesterday after a government report of a steep decline in new-home sales stirred concerns that weakness in housing would continue to dog the economy.

The Commerce Department reported that November new-home sales fell 9 percent from October to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 647,000. That renewed nervousness that consumers could become uneasy and reduce their spending.

Stocks, which fell more than 1 percent Thursday after unwelcome economic readings and the assassination of Pakistani opposition leader Benazir Bhutto, fluctuated through the day yesterday. The Chicago purchasing managers' index briefly offered some support to investor sentiment yesterday after it showed a stronger-than-expected increase for December manufacturing activity in the Midwest.

But Wall Street appeared unable to hold onto its enthusiasm for very long. Investors are eager for any data that can help illuminate whether weakness in the housing and financial sectors is undercutting the overall economy, possibly leading to a recession.

Quincy Krosby, chief investment strategist at the Hartford, says the news including growth in Midwest manufacturing and the weak housing report could have an outsize effect on stocks because of the session's light volume.

"What you have is a very thinly traded market, so any news, whether it's good news or bad news, can skew the market actually quite dramatically one way or the other," she said.

The Dow Jones industrial average rose 6.26, or 0.05 percent, to 13,365.87. The Standard & Poor's 500 index rose 2.12, or 0.14 percent, to 1,478.49, and the Nasdaq composite index fell 2.33, or 0.09 percent, to 2,674.46.

Light, sweet crude fell 62 cents to settle at $96 per barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange. Rising prices in recent days have renewed talk of breaching the psychological benchmark of $100. Oil hit a peak of $99.29 on Nov. 21.

Yesterday's economic readings painted a mixed picture, lending little help to stocks.

The pace of sales of new homes in November proved much weaker than economists had been expecting. Wall Street had predicted sales would drop about 1.8 percent to a pace of 715,000.

In a more optimistic sign for the economy, the purchasing managers' index, considered a precursor of the national Institute for Supply Management report being released Wednesday, rose to 56.6 from 52.9 in November. Economists, on average, had been expecting a showing of 52.0, according to Dow Jones Newswires.

But the Chicago PMI's December employment index fell to 49.0 from 54.4 in the previous month. Wall Street regards solid employment as the underpinning of the economy's well-being because it feeds consumer spending, which accounts for more than two-thirds of U.S. economic activity.

Krosby said the turmoil in Pakistan after Bhutto's assassination could make investors leery of holding big positions heading into a holiday weekend.

While the markets are open Monday, many investors are likely to stay home ahead of New Year's Day.

In corporate news, a New York state regulator said Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway would receive a license to open a bond insurance business in the state. Berkshire Hathaway said yesterday it agreed to buy NRG N.V., the reinsurance unit of ING Group, for about $435.7 million in cash.

Genesco Inc. jumped $5.44, or 16.5 percent, to $38.50 after a judge ruled the Finish Line Inc. cannot back out of its $1.5 billion purchase of Genesco. Finish Line fell 75 cents, or 24.6 percent, to $2.30.

The Russell 2000 index of smaller companies fell 1.75, or 0.23 percent, to 771.76.

Japan's Nikkei stock average fell 1.65 percent. Britain's FTSE 100 fell 0.32 percent, and France's CAC-40 ended essentially flat.