US STOCKS-Wall St flat but on track for 7th straight weekly gain

Fri Feb 15, 2013 2:12pm EST

* S&P 500 in longest weekly streak since Dec 2010-Jan 2011

* Equities continue to struggle for direction in tight range

* Herbalife shares soar after Icahn discloses ownership

* Indexes: Dow up 0.1 pct, S&P flat, Nasdaq up 0.1 pct

By Ryan Vlastelica

NEW YORK, Feb 15 (Reuters) - U.S. stocks were little changed on Friday as investors once again found few reasons to make big bets with the S&P 500 on track to close out a seventh straight week of gains.

Equities have struggled for direction recently, with major indexes moving only slightly in the past several sessions. The biggest daily move for the S&P in the past five sessions was on Tuesday, when it rose less than 0.2 percent.

The benchmark index, up nearly 7 percent so far this year, is facing strong technical resistance near the 1,525 level. But investors, expecting the index to advance further in the quarter, have held back from locking in profits.

"There's no news that suggests the strong underpinning for stocks isn't appropriate. We may have gotten ahead of ourselves, but there's also an absence of bad news," said Mark Luschini, chief investment strategist at Janney Montgomery Scott in Philadelphia.

Many investors are starting to look ahead to a debate in Washington over sequestration, automatic across-the-board spending cuts put in place as part of a larger congressional budget fight. The cuts are due to kick in March 1 unless lawmakers agree to an alternative.

"This had been far enough out to not yet become an impediment for stocks, but it will start to move into the forefront and cause people to take a bit of a jaundiced eye towards the market," said Luschini, who helps oversee about $54 billion in assets.

The New York Federal Reserve said manufacturing in New York state expanded for the first time in seven months, while Thomson Reuters/University of Michigan's preliminary reading of consumer sentiment rose from the prior month and beat expectations.

But U.S. manufacturing fell in January after a rise in the prior month.

Wall Street's gain thus far in 2013 has largely been driven by strong corporate earnings, while data indicated some weakening in economic conditions.

The Dow Jones industrial average was up 11.27 points, or 0.08 percent, at 13,984.66. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index was up 0.32 points, or 0.02 percent, at 1,521.70. The Nasdaq Composite Index was up 1.51 points, or 0.05 percent, at 3,200.17.

The benchmark S&P 500 is up 0.2 percent for the week and is on track to register its seventh straight week of gains by the close of trading Friday, a feat not seen since a run of consecutive weekly gains between December 2010 and January 2011.

A surge in merger and acquisition activity, with more than $158 billion in deals announced so far in 2013, has given further support to the equity market as it points to healthy valuations and bets on the economic outlook.

Herbalife shares pared earlier gains and were up 8.5 percent to $41.53, a day after billionaire investor Carl Icahn said in a regulatory filing that he now owns 13 percent of Herbalife and was ready to put it in play.

MeadWestvaco Corp climbed 10 percent to $34.90 as the biggest percentage gainer on the S&P index after activist investor Nelson Peltz's Trian Fund Management LP said in an SEC filing it had bought about 1.6 million shares of the packaging company.

Burger King Worldwide shares gained 4 percent to $17.25 after it beat estimates with a 94 percent rise in fourth-quarter profit, thanks to new menu additions.

Oil service stocks declined, weighed by a 5.6 percent drop in shares of Transocean to $55.99, after the rig contractor reported its fleet update and Deutsche Bank cut its rating on the stock to "sell." The PHLX oil service sector lost 1.7 percent.

A couple walks along the rough surf during sunset at Oahu's North Shore, December 26, 2013. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

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