* Caution ahead of Sunday's referendum in Crimea
* U.S. consumer sentiment slips; bad weather eyed
* General Mills warns profit hit by competition
* Indexes: Dow off 0.1 pct; S&P off flat; Nasdaq off 0.1 pct
By Angela Moon
NEW YORK, March 14 U.S. stocks were little
changed in a volatile session on Friday, setting all three
indexes up for a weekly decline, as concerns over tensions
between Ukraine and Russia escalated ahead of a referendum in
Crimea this weekend.
The S&P 500 was below a key technical support level of 1,850
for the second day. Curbing investors' enthusiasm for equities,
Russia's navy said fighter jets had started training exercises
over the Mediterranean Sea, an announcement likely to raise
tensions in the standoff with Ukraine.
Global equity markets were pressured, while gold and the yen
strengthened as traders flocked into the safe-haven assets.
The CBOE Volatility index VIX, Wall Street's
so-called fear gauge, rose 5.2 percent to 17.07. A key emerging
market exchange-traded fund, the iShares MSCI Emerging Markets
ETF, gained 0.6 percent to $38.40 after falling nearly 2
percent in the previous session.
Following the recent selloff in emerging markets, some
market participants believe now is the time to get into emerging
market equities, but analysts are wary.
"The numbers, certainly on the face of it, look compelling,"
said Jade Fu, investment manager at Heartwood Investment
Management. The MSCI emerging markets index is trading at 1.5
times price-to-book value and poor sentiment has already
resulted in outflows of over $30 billion from emerging market
equities this year, Fu said.
But "it is difficult to hold a very optimistic view of
emerging market assets at this time, even if lower valuations
have made them appear more attractive."
After holding six hours of "direct and candid" talks with
his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov in London, U.S. Secretary
of State John Kerry said the U.S. and international community
would not recognize the outcome of the referendum in Crimea on
The Dow Jones industrial average fell 9.25 points or
0.06 percent, to 16,099.64, the S&P 500 lost 0.54 points
or 0.03 percent, to 1,845.8, and the Nasdaq Composite
dropped 2.982 points or 0.07 percent, to 4,257.438.
The Dow and the S&P 500 were set for weekly declines after
two weeks of gains, while the Nasdaq was headed for the first
down week after five up weeks.
In economic news, producer prices fell 0.1 percent in
February, dragged down by falling costs for services, offering
little sign of inflation pressures. U.S. consumer sentiment
weakened in early March as an unusually harsh winter appeared to
dim views on the economy's prospects.
General Mills Inc fell 2 percent to $49.98. It
warned third-quarter earnings would fall below analysts'
expectations as it faces increased competition from store brands
and spends more on marketing its yogurts.
General Motors Co gained 1.7 percent to $34.37. The
automaker is facing increasing pressure to compensate victims
for an ignition defect that prompted the recall of 1.6 million
Cooper Tire & Rubber Co jumped 6.1 percent to $24.20
after reporting fourth-quarter earnings ahead of Wall Street
Aeropostale Inc tumbled 15.6 percent to $6.16. The
teen apparel retailer reported its fifth straight quarterly