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US stocks almost flat after torrent of earnings

Specialists work at the Barclays post on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange on July 24, 2013 in New York
Specialists work at the Barclays post on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange on July 24, 2013 in New York. US stocks Friday rallied from intraday lows, picking up momentum after a dreary open and ending the day narrowly in the black.

US stocks meandered through a busy week of corporate earnings results, with two of the three major indices concluding the week essentially flat.

Analysts described the market as entering a "consolidation" phase where trade is choppy and investors still need to digest recent record peaks scored by the Dow and the S&P 500.

Sam Stovall, chief investment strategist at Standard & Poor's Capital IQ, predicted the S&P 500 would soon breach 1,700 but would first need to overcome "psychological resistance" to the new benchmark.

"Like a rusty door, it takes several attempts before it finally swings open," Stovall said.

The S&P 500 slipped 0.44 point to 1,691.65 at week's end, essentially flat.

The Dow rose a miniscule 15.09 (0.01 percent) to 15,558.83. The Nasdaq increased 25.55 (0.71 percent) to 3,613.16.

Stovall rated the week's relatively light calendar of economic reports as a "net positive" with strong results in new-home sales and durable goods outweighing a disappointing report on existing-home sales. He also cited a report of European business sentiment from survey firm Markit as suggesting a better outlook for Europe.

The week was instead dominated by a diverse set of company reports on everything from industrial heavyweights like Boeing and Ford, to technology players like Amazon and Netflix to big financial players like Travelers and Visa.

Within this plethora of reports, a few stood out as particularly influential.

Apple's earnings, while 22 percent below last year's level, cheered the market after profits exceeded expectations by 16 cents at $7.47 per share.

Apple shares have slumped in recent months, but some analysts expressed confidence the company would soon introduce more appealing products that should drive sales. Apple shares closed the week 3.8 percent higher.

Even more impressive was Facebook, which vaulted nearly 30 percent higher Thursday after an earnings report ended doubts about the company's ability to garner advertising revenue from mobile technology. Analysts cooed that the results were "stunning" and among the best technology earnings results since the financial crisis.

The market was considerably less enthused by Dow member Caterpillar's earnings report, which helped drive the Dow into negative territory Wednesday. The big industrial has been badly hit by the global slowdown in mining, missing analyst profit forecasts by 25 cents per share and slashing its 2013 profit and revenue forecasts. Shares ended the week 4.4 percent lower.

Overall, more big companies have exceeded expectations than lagged them. Analysts now forecast that S&P 500 companies will see earnings rise by 4.5 percent, whereas analysts saw profit growth of 3.2 percent before earnings season got under way, according to S&P Capital IQ.

"The trends are still positive," said Bud Kasper, financial adviser at Barber Financial Group.

Several major companies are due to report next week, including oil giants ExxonMobil and Chevron, pharmaceutical behemoths Pfizer and Merck and consumer staples icon Procter & Gamble.

Next week will also see a busy week of economic indicators headlined by Wednesday's report on second-quarter gross domestic product and Friday's all-important reading on the jobs market.

There will also be key data on home prices and consumer confidence.

Looming over the week's calendar is a two-day meeting of the Federal Reserve's policy-making body, the Federal Open Markets Committee, that opens Tuesday.

The Fed gathering will attract attention, but Kasper did not expect a major market reaction to the FOMC's concluding statement Wednesday, given that Fed officials have already commented extensively in recent weeks on their monetary plans.

But the indicators will be crucial, in part because the Fed has said economic data will determine its course on when to pull back on its aggressive bond-buying program.

"We're going to probably see that things will be satisfactory," Kasper predicted. "What people are really wanting to do is to remain confident."

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