US STOCKS-Wall St ends near flat; retailers fly for a second day

Wed Feb 26, 2014 5:02pm EST

* S&P 500 hits resistance at 2013 year-end mark

* Target and Lowe's rally after results

* January new home sales surge past forecasts

* Dow up 0.1 pct; S&P 500 flat; Nasdaq up 0.1 pct

By Caroline Valetkevitch

NEW YORK, Feb 26 (Reuters) - U.S. stocks finished flat on Wednesday with investors hesitant to make a big move on the day before comments from Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen, though retailers' shares rallied on results for a second day.

Target Corp and Lowe's Cos Inc shares jumped following upbeat earnings and gave the biggest boosts to the S&P 500. An S&P 500 retail index gained more than 1 percent for a second day. After the bell, shares of J.C. Penney Co Inc gained 4 percent to $6.20 following its results.

The S&P 500 once again briefly broke above its 2013 year-end level of 1,848.36, which has served as resistance, but failed to hold above it, analysts said. The index remained down 0.2 percent for the year.

"From a technical perspective, we're battling with the year-to-date break-even mark on the S&P," said Todd Salamone, vice president of research at Schaeffer's Investment Research in Cincinnati, Ohio. "It just seems ... there's no firm commitment to drive the S&P back above this particular level."

But he said the market also seems to be biding time until Thursday, when Yellen addresses the Senate Banking Committee in semiannual testimony about monetary policy. This appearance, originally set for Feb. 13, had to be postponed when Washington was walloped with the heaviest snowfall of the season.

Her comments will be scrutinized for insight into how much an unexpectedly cold winter has affected economic activity, and for confirmation that the Fed will maintain its stimulus-trimming schedule.

The Dow Jones industrial average rose 18.75 points or 0.12 percent, to end at 16,198.41. The S&P 500 inched up a mere 0.04 of a point to finish at 1,845.16. The Nasdaq Composite added 4.477 points or 0.10 percent, to close at 4,292.064.

The S&P 500 reached a record intraday high of 1,858.71 on Monday, but was unable to hit a record close.

The small-cap Russell 2000 index . climbed to a record closing high of 1,181.72.

Adding to investor anxiety were developments in Ukraine. Russian President Vladimir Putin put 150,000 combat troops on high alert for war games near Ukraine.

On the earnings front, Target shares jumped 7 percent to $60.49 after the third-largest U.S. retailer reported results, even as the company said sales and earnings had been affected by a massive data breach and that costs relating to the event could hurt future profits.

Lowe's stock rose 5.4 percent to $50.72 after the home improvement retailer reported earnings and sales growth and unveiled an additional stock-buyback program of $5 billion.

The S&P 500 retail index gained 1.4 percent. Wednesday's strong retail performance came a day after upbeat results from Home Depot and Macy's.

In another positive sign, new home sales surged to a 5-1/2-year high in January, far exceeding expectations. While much recent data has been below forecasts, analysts have attributed that to bad weather rather than worsening fundamentals. The housing data could support that interpretation.

Among decliners, First Solar Inc shares fell a day after the U.S. solar panel maker reported that its fourth-quarter net income fell 58 percent. First Solar's stock slid 9.1 percent to end Wednesday's session at $52.74.

About 6.9 billion shares changed hands on U.S. exchanges, below the 7 billion average so far this month, according to data from BATS Global Markets.

Advancers beat decliners by a ratio of slightly more than 3 to 2 on both the New York Stock Exchange and the Nasdaq.

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