The Dow inched up 21.04 points to close at 12418 on a quiet day for the markets
Stocks barely budged Wednesday, and investors held on to their gains from a strong opening to the year. It wasn't much, but after the lurching, up-and-down weeks of 2011, investors were grateful for the winning streak.
Strong December sales helped the stocks of automakers and specialty stores. Banks, health care companies, and utilities fell slightly. Netflix surged after its first good news in months.
But nothing else moved much. The Dow Jones industrial average edged up 21.04 points, or 0.2 percent, to close at 12,418.42. The Dow opened the year with a 180-point gain Tuesday, which brought it to the highest level since July.
"At least thus far in 2012 we haven't followed the path of 2011, where if it's a good day, there's a bad day right away," said Ryan Detrick, senior technical analyst with Schaeffer's Investment Research.
The Standard & Poor's 500 index and Nasdaq also had big gains Tuesday but only moved a fraction of a point a day later. The S&P inched up 0.24 to close at 1,277.30. The Nasdaq fell 0.36 to 2,648.36.
"It's healthy to see that after a big rally," said Randy Warren, chief investment officer for Warren Financial Service. "People need to sit back and think about it."
Retailing industry stocks rose 0.8 percent as a group after post-Christmas sales came in 5.3 percent better than a year ago. Bed Bath & Beyond Inc. rose 1.8 percent, and Ross Stores Inc., which sells discounted clothes, rose 0.7 percent.
Big-box stores fell, though. Analysts have been concerned that some stores raised holiday sales with deep discounts that will hurt profits. Wal-Mart Stores Inc. fell 1.1 percent, making it the second-biggest decliner among the Dow's 30 stocks. Target Corp. fell 2.2 percent and Kohl's Corp. fell 1.4 percent.
Automakers delivered a strong end to 2011, helped carmaker stocks. Analysts had been expecting December to be a strong sales month for cars on the theory that more confidence in the economy would unlock pent-up demand. Ford Motor Co. rose 1.5 percent and General Motors Co. rose 0.5 percent after those two companies and Chrysler reported strong increases in December and full-year sales.
The biggest winner in the S&P 500 was Netflix Inc., up 11.4 percent. The company, which delivers movies and TV shows online and by mail, said customers had streamed more than 2 billion hours of video in the fourth quarter.
The yield on 10-year Treasury notes briefly popped above 2 percent, then fell to to 1.98 percent in the afternoon. Yields have been falling over the past year as investors have loaded up on low-risk investments. A rise in yields suggests that investors are more willing to take risks by parking money elsewhere in exchange for higher rewards.
The price of gold rose $12.20 to $1,612.70 per ounce. Oil rose 26 cents to $103.20.
European markets declined, and the euro fell back below $1.30, to $1.2945, within a penny of its lowest level in a year. Another increase in Italy's borrowing costs renewed worries about Europe's efforts to restore confidence in its debt-hobbled governments.
In other corporate news:
— Acme Packet Inc., which makes phone equipment, plunged 19 percent after saying its quarterly profit and revenue would be well below analyst expectations.
— Yahoo Inc. fell 3.1 percent after the company named Scott Thompson, president of eBay Inc.'s PayPal division, as CEO — its fourth in five years. Yahoo has been without a permanent CEO since firing Carol Bartz in September. EBay fell 3.8 percent.
— Fallen photography pioneer Eastman Kodak Co. fell 18 cents to 47 cents after The Wall Street Journal, quoting people familiar with the matter, reported it is preparing a bankruptcy filing in case its efforts to sell some of its patents fail. On Tuesday, Kodak said its stock could be removed from the New York Stock Exchange if it doesn't rise above $1 in the next six months.