NEW YORK - Some encouraging corporate news failed to give the broader stock market a boost on Monday, and stocks edged lower as investors waited for news on the outlook for the Federal Reserve's interest rate policy.
Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) jumped after announcing that it's splitting itself in two. One company will focus on personal computers and printing, and the other on technology services. Medical-equipment maker Carefusion (CFN) surged on word that it was being acquired by its rival Becton Dickinson (BDX).
But after opening higher, stocks gave up their early gains and alternated between small gains and small losses.
The market's bull run has faltered in recent weeks, and the Standard & Poor's 500 index logged its biggest monthly drop since January last month. Stocks rebounded from that slump on Friday after a report showed a pickup in hiring last month, but many investors remain uncertain about the outlook for stocks as the Fed nears the end of its bond-buying stimulus program and considers raising rates.
"The tug of war between the bulls and the bears is ongoing now," said Quincy Krosby, a market strategist at Prudential Financial.
The S&P 500 fell 3.08 points, or 0.2 percent, to close at 1,964.82. The Dow Jones industrial average dropped 17.78 points, or 0.1 percent, ending at 16,991.91. The Nasdaq composite fell 20.82 points, or 0.5 percent, to finish at 4,454.80.
Hewlett-Packard gained after announcing that it's splitting itself in two. One company will focus on personal computers and printing and the other on technology services such as data storage, servers and software. The stock climbed $1.67, or 4.7 percent, to $36.87.
Carefusion jumped $10.58, or 22.9 percent, to $56.75 on news that it was being acquired by a rival. New Jersey medical equipment maker Becton Dickinson said it will pay $12.2 billion for the company, in a combination focused on medication systems for hospitals and pharmacies. Becton climbed $9.14, or 7.9 percent, to $124.98.
The Fed is due to release minutes on Wednesday of its policy meeting last month, and the central bank will end its bond purchases this month. Now investors are watching for clues about the likely timing of any interest rate hike.
Investors should remember that if the Fed is raising rates, it will be because the economy is strengthening, said Karyn Cavanaugh, a senior market strategist at Voya.
"If the potential rise in interest rates is predicated on stronger growth. ... and if the market recognizes that earnings are good, and the economy is good then (higher rates) it shouldn't be much of an event," said Cavanaugh.
H&R Block (HRB) logged the biggest drop in the S&P 500 after saying its latest attempt to sell its banking business is getting delayed in the regulatory approval process. The tax preparer said it would not be able to complete the deal before the next tax season. Its stock dropped $1.75, or 5.5 percent, to $29.91.
Nasdaq-listed GT Advanced Technologies (GTAT), a supplier to Apple (AAPL), was also among the day's biggest losers. The company, which is developing sapphire materials to replace glass on some Apple's products, lost almost all of its market value after saying that it was filing for bankruptcy. The stock plunged $10.25, or 93 percent, to 80 cents.
In emerging markets, Brazil's stock market jumped after the left-leaning President Dilma Rousseff was forced into a runoff race against Aecio Neves, a center-right challenger, who only surged in the final week of the campaign. Rousseff is promising to expand Brazil's social programs and continue strong state involvement in the economy, while Neves says he will pursue more centrist economic approaches, such as central bank independence, more privatizations and the pursuit of trade deals with Europe and the U.S.
Brazil's benchmark Ibovespa index rose 4.7 percent to 57,115.
The dollar fell to 108.96 yen, and the euro inched up to $1.2624. U.S. government bond prices rose. The yield on the 10-year Treasury note, which moves in the opposite direction to its price, fell to 2.42 percent.
In energy trading, oil rose as the value of the dollar dropped. Natural gas fell sharply on forecasts for warmer weather.
U.S. benchmark oil rose 60 cents to $90.34 a barrel. Brent crude, a benchmark for much international oil imported by U.S. refiners, gained 48 cents to $92.79 a barrel in London. Oil is priced in dollars, so a decline in the dollar makes oil cheaper for buyers holding other currencies.
Natural gas dropped 14 cents to $3.90 per 1,000 cubic feet amid forecasts of mild temperatures along parts of the East Coast. Wholesale gasoline rose 3.47 cents to $2.413 a gallon, and heating oil rose 0.5 cent to $2.621 a gallon
In metals trading, the price of gold rose $14.40, or 1.2 percent, to $1,207.30 an ounce. Silver also gained, climbing 40 cents, or 2.4 percent, to 17.23 an ounce. Copper gained 3.7 cents, or 1.2 percent, to $3.04 per pound.