NEW YORK -- Investors are having a hard time making up their minds.
The stock market extended its longest period of indecision in nearly 15 years Monday. For nearly three weeks, the Dow Jones industrial average has alternated between gains and losses, the longest such streak since July 1998.
The flip-flopping follows a decisively strong start to the year that drove both the Dow and the Standard & Poor's 500 index to record highs. Since mid-March, however, signs of a slowdown in the U.S. and another meltdown in a troubled fringe economy in Europe, this time Cyprus, made investors more cautious.
"It's almost as if this market is frustrating both the bulls and the bears," said Ryan Detrick, a senior technical analyst at Schaeffer's Investment Research. "It's tough to say buy the dips because then we go down, and we're not going anywhere."
Even on Monday, the market was indecisive. The Dow fell as much as 67 points in the morning, then turned higher in the afternoon to end with a modest gain of nearly 50 points.
Investors are turning their focus to earnings reports from major U.S. companies, which began in earnest late Monday when Alcoa, a major maker of aluminum, turned in a mixed report. Its earnings were ahead of expectations but its revenue missed. The stock fell 13 cents in after-hours trading following the release of its earnings report. It closed up 15 cents to $8.39 during regular trading.
Later this week the pace of reporting picks up when Bed Bath & Beyond, Wells Fargo and JPMorgan Chase announce their first-quarter performance.
A big factor driving the Standard & Poor's 500 up 9.6 percent this year has been optimism over company profits. While the expectations for the first quarter are relatively modest, many investors are expecting to see more of a pickup in earnings later in the year.
Earnings for companies in the S&P 500 index are expected to rise just 0.7 percent from the first quarter of last year, but that growth is expected to accelerate sharply to 13 percent in the final three-month period of the year, according to data from S&P Capital IQ.
On Monday the Dow Jones industrial average rose 48.23 points, or 0.3 percent, to close at 14,613.48. The S&P 500 index closed up 9.79 points, or 0.6 percent, at 1,563.07.
J.C. Penney slumped 10 percent in after-hours trading after the troubled department store chain announced that it was bringing back its old CEO, Mike Ullman. CEO Ron Johnson is departing after his turnaround strategy failed to win over shoppers, which included slashing the number of sales.
Telecommunications stocks fell 0.5 percent and health care stocks inched up just 0.2 percent, lagging the rest of the market. The two industry groups have performed well this year as investors sought out less risky stocks that pay good dividends. Health care companies are up almost 16 percent, making them the best performers in the S&P 500.
Lufkin Industries, an oilfield equipment maker, surged $24.03, or 38 percent, to $87.96 after General Electric Co. agreed to buy the company for $3 billion. GE wants to bolster its oil and gas operations. Its stock rose 19 cents, or 0.8 percent, to $23.12.
Johnson & Johnson logged the biggest percentage decline on the 30-member Dow Jones industrial average, dropping 93 cents to $81.11. Analysts at JPMorgan cut their rating on the stock to "neutral," saying it has risen too far, too fast. Johnson & Johnson is up 16 percent this year.
Stocks fell Friday after the government reported a slowdown in hiring that was far worse than economists had expected. The report capped a bad week: The S&P 500 logged its biggest weekly decline of the year as signs emerged that U.S. growth is starting to cool.
In other trading, the Nasdaq composite index rose 18.39 points, or 0.6 percent, to 3,222.25.
The yield on the 10-year Treasury rose to 1.75 percent from 1.71 percent late Friday. It went as 1.69 percent Friday, its lowest level of the year. The benchmark rate has fallen from a recent high of 2.06 percent reached March 11 as demand for low-risk assets increases.