* 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 (Reuters) - 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 Sunday.
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 vehicles.
Cooper Tire & Rubber Co jumped 6.1 percent to $24.20 after reporting fourth-quarter earnings ahead of Wall Street estimates.
Aeropostale Inc tumbled 15.6 percent to $6.16. The teen apparel retailer reported its fifth straight quarterly loss.