By Kate Gibson, MarketWatch
NEW YORK (MarketWatch) -- U.S. stocks were flat to down on Friday, ending a mixed year with a whimper as uncertainty over the crisis in Europe dampened investor enthusiasm for equities.
The Dow Jones Industrial Average is set to end the year up 5.8%. The S&P 500 Index is clinging to a 0.3% gain, while the Nasdaq Composite Index is set to end the year down 1.5% for its first annual loss since 2008.
"As we end the year we are pretty much right where we started," said Chris Hobart, chief executive officer of Hobart Financial Group in Charlotte, N.C.
"This is a process that is going to have to be worked out over time and unfortunately we've seen a relatively small country like Greece have their issues, then trickle through Italy, and now come to life in Spain," Hobart of Europe's regional debt trouble.
The Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJI) fell 35.23 points, or 0.3%, to 12,251.88 with 21 of its 30 components retreating.
Dow component Verizon Communictions Inc. (VZ) edged 0.2% higher as the mobile carrier fielded criticism for its planned $2 'convenience fee' for customers who make one-time payments online or over the phone.
The S&P 500 (SPX) fell almost 2 point to 1,261.18, with consumer staples the greatest laggard and telecommunications faring best among its 10 industry groups.
Leading the S&P's gainers, shares of MetroPCS Communications Inc. (PCS) climbed 5% after JPMorgan Chase & Co. said the pay-as-you-go carrier could be targeted for acquisition by bigger competitors At&T Inc. (T) or T-Mobile USA.
The Nasdaq Composite (RIXF) rose half a point to 2,614.40.
For every stock that fell more than one advanced on the New York Stock Exchange, with 205 million shares traded as of 1:25 p.m. Eastern.
The time "between Christmas and New Year's tends to be slow; there might be an uptick (in volume) near the close, with people making final moves, whether for tax preparation or whatever," said Hobart of the minuscule volume.
"Here in the U.S. there is not a ton of news to react to," he added of the dearth of market-moving events on the domestic front.
Ahead of Friday's opening bell, Spain's new government unveiled austerity measures and said it expects a 2011 budget gap of nearly 8%.
"Economic conditions in Europe remain tenuous, with no clear end in sight," Kevin Giddis, fixed-income strategist at Morgan Keegan, wrote in emailed commentary.
"European leaders have little choice but to institute real austerity measures in order to correct for years of fiscal irresponsibility, but such measures virtually guarantee that the region will experience no small amount of economic pain," Giddis noted.
Investors drew limited cheer from reassurances made by German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble, who ruled out a breakup of the euro region in an interview published Friday.
"I think that in the next 12 months we will have avoided the danger of contagion and will have stabilized the euro zone," Schaeuble told Germany's Handelsblatt newspaper.