U.S. stocks finished little changed after rallying sharply in the previous session, as encouraging results from auto makers helped offset euro-zone liquidity concerns.
The Dow Jones Industrial Average rose 21.04 points, or 0.2%, to 12418.42, after crossing the flat line 21 times during the session. Wednesday's gain came after the Dow surged 179.82 points on Tuesday, the first U.S. trading day of 2012. It was the third-biggest point gain to kick off a new year in the index's history.
The Standard & Poor's 500-stock index edged up 0.24 point, or 0.02%, to 1277.30, its third gain out of the last four trading days. Consumer discretionary and material stocks rose, while health care and utilities fell. The technology-oriented Nasdaq Composite slipped 0.36 point, or 0.01%, to 2648.36.
"The first two days of 2012 have been a microcosm of what we saw in 2011: risk on and risk off," said John Carey, portfolio manager at Pioneer Investments. "We're in that funny period where we don't have much in the way of concrete corporate news. People are clutching at straws in the absence of corporate earnings."
Alcoa rose 22 cents, or 2.4%, to $9.45 and Microsoft gained 64 cents, or 2.4%, to 27.40, to pace the Dow's gains.
Verizon Communications shed 52 cents, or 1.3%, to 39.21. The telecommunications company reported it sold 4.2 million iPhones in the fourth quarter, a quarterly record for the wireless carrier.
Encouraging results from some auto makers helped buoy sentiment. Ford Motor reported a 10% year-over-year increase in vehicle sales for December while General Motors reported a 4.6% gain. For all of 2011, Ford sales increased 11% and GM's rose 13%. Both auto makers see sales gains intensifying in 2012.
Ford rose 17 cents, or 1.5%, to 11.30. GM advanced 10 cents, or 0.5%, to 21.15.
Meanwhile, European markets pulled back from the recent string of gains amid concerns over liquidity among euro-zone banks. Overnight deposits at the European Central Bank reached an all-time high, suggesting banks remain more willing to park money at the ECB than to lend to other banks.
"We went one whole day without thinking too much about Europe, but now it's back on the table," said Dean Junkans, chief investment officer for Wells Fargo Private Bank. "Some days it looks like a resolution is nearing. Other days, fresh concerns or fears surface. This is going to be a long process. You don't solve decades of overspending in a few months."
In addition, Spanish bond yields rose. A report in Spain's Expansion newspaper said the government is considering applying for loans from the European Union's rescue fund and the International Monetary Fund as it moves to restructure Spain's banking sector.
The Stoxx Europe 600 slipped 0.6% after rising 4.5% over the previous four sessions. Asian bourses were mixed, with Japan's Nikkei Stock Average gaining 1.2% on its first trading session of 2012, while China's Shanghai Composite shed 1.4%.
On the economic front, U.S. factory orders rose for the first time in three months in November on stronger demand for aircraft and other goods. Orders increased 1.8%, according to the Commerce Department. Economists had forecast a 2.1% jump.
Separately, TrimTabs Investment Research forecast that only 38,000 new jobs were added last month, well below the median forecast of 155,000 jobs that economists are expecting in Friday's nonfarm payrolls report.
In corporate news, Yahoo named Scott Thompson, the president of eBay's PayPal division, as its new chief executive. The appointment comes after the Internet company fired its previous CEO, Carol Bartz, in September. Interim CEO Tim Morse will resume his role as chief financial officer. Shares shed 50 cents, or 3.1%, to 15.78.
Netflix said its members watched more than 2 billion hours of TV shows and movies through its streaming service during the fourth quarter. Shares rose 8.21, or 11%, to 80.45.
Liz Claiborne will rebrand itself as Fifth & Pacific Cos. as it moves past the iconic brand and focuses on Juicy Couture, kate spade and Lucky Brand. The stock increased 80 cents, or 9.3%, to 9.41.
TiVo jumped 90 cents, or 10%, to 9.82, after AT&T agreed to pay the set-top box maker at least $215 million to settle litigation. AT&T also acquired rights to use TiVo's intellectual property.
Acme Packet fell 6.11, or 19%, to 25.70, after the networking company provided a fourth-quarter earnings and revenue outlook that fell well below analyst forecasts. Acme cited uncertainty in the North American service-provider market.
LCA-Vision surged 1.09, or 36%, to 4.17. The laser-vision-correction-services company said the number of procedures performed in the fourth quarter rose 30% over the same period a year earlier.
Life Partners Holdings slumped 1.10, or 17%, to 5.27. The insurer said a lawsuit had been filed against it and three top executives by the Securities and Exchange Commission, alleging disclosure and accounting fraud.
-By Steven Russolillo and Tomi Kilgore, Dow Jones Newswires; 212-416-2180; firstname.lastname@example.org