Dow, Nasdaq at 2009 highs

By Alexandra Twin, senior writer

NEW YORK ( -- Stocks ended a choppy session barely higher Wednesday, with the Dow and Nasdaq eking out fresh 2009 highs as investors mulled a stronger dollar and opted to play it cautious at the end of a tumultuous year.

The Dow Jones industrial average (INDU) added a few points, ending at the highest point since Oct. 1, 2008. The S&P 500 index (SPX) ended just above the unchanged line, closing just shy of 15-month highs hit two days ago.

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The Nasdaq composite (COMP) added a few points, ending at the highest point since Oct. 3, 2008.

Stocks ended a volatile session modestly lower Tuesday, with the three major indexes breaking a six-session winning streak that had left the market at 15-month highs. That weakness spread into Wednesday's session, the second-to-last trading day of the year.

A stronger U.S. dollar put some pressure on the market as well, dragging on commodity prices and stocks, and pulling down shares of companies that do a lot of business overseas and therefore benefit from a weaker dollar. After sliding for most of the year versus the euro and yen, the dollar has gained over the last few weeks as investors have bet that the economy is improving.

Trading volume has been low this week, with many market pros and individual investors on vacation. Lighter trading volume can cause increased volatility. All financial markets are closed Friday for the New Year's Day holiday.

Year-to-date, the Dow has risen 20%, the S&P 500 has climbed almost 25% and the Nasdaq has gained 45%, as of Tuesday's close. All three indexes have posted more substantial gains since falling to multi-year lows on March 9 amid the height of the financial crisis.

"I think the market seems to have ended the year on a slightly positive note, with many investors happy to lock in their profits and look ahead to the new year," said Michael Sheldon, chief market strategist at RDM Financial Group.

Any stock market gains accrued next year are expected to be a lot milder, analysts say, as the government stimulus fades at the same time the slow-growing economy struggles to create jobs. Meanwhile, the consumer spending environment is expected to stay weak, the dollar could firm up and the Federal Reserve is expected to begin raising interest rates in the second half of 2010.

Sheldon said that 2010 could end up looking something like 2004, which proved to be a leveling year after the massive gains of 2003. 2003's gains followed a three-year bear market.

The S&P 500 rose 26% in 2003, seesawed for the first nine months of 2004 and then managed a big run in the last quarter, ending the year up around 9%.

Sheldon said it wouldn't be surprising to see the market churn or even selloff a bit in the first half of the year but eventually move back up to end the year with gains of 10% to 15%.

Other analysts are concerned that a bigger selloff could take hold, particularly if economists have been overly-optimistic about the economy's ability to recharge once the fiscal and monetary stimulus starts to fade out.

"Right now the sentiment in the stock market is at bullish levels that haven't been seen since 2007," said Matt Havens, wealth advisor at Global Vision Advisors. In October 2007, the S&P 500 and Dow industrials closed at all-time highs and the Nasdaq composite at the highest point since 2000.

"The underlying strength of the economy is uncertain going into the next year and the longer stocks keep moving higher, the greater the potential for a significant pullback," Havens said.

Economy: The Chicago PMI, a regional read on manufacturing, rose to 60 in December from 56.1 previously. The improvement was a surprise, with economists surveyed by expecting it to drop to 55.1.

Financials: Troubled auto and mortgage financing firm GMAC Financial Services is expected to receive a third round of bailout funds, according to a published report. GMAC is expected to get an additional $3.8 billion on top of the $13.5 billion it has already received since Dec. 2008.

World markets: Asian markets mostly ended lower. In Europe, London's FTSE 100 lost 0.7%, Germany's DAX lost 0.9% and France's CAC 40 lost 0.6%.

Commodities and the dollar: COMEX gold for February delivery fell $5.60 to settle at $1,092.50 an ounce. Gold closed at an all-time high of $1,218.30 an ounce earlier this month.

U.S. light crude oil for February delivery rose 41 cents to settle at $79.28 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange.

Bonds: Treasury prices rose, lowering the yield on the 10-year note to 3.79% from 3.80% late Tuesday. Treasury prices and yields move in opposite directions.

Market breadth was negative. On the New York Stock Exchange, losers beat winners by eight to seven on volume of 645 million shares. On the Nasdaq, advancers topped decliners seven to six on volume of 1.31 billion shares. To top of page

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