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Stocks drop as investors await new year

U.S. stocks fell Wednesday in another low-volume session as investors stepped back after a string of gains and waited for the start of 2012 to place any large bets.

Equities ended mostly unchanged on Tuesday on about half of the year's daily average volume as investors paused following a 5 percent gain in the previous week.

Markets may continue to struggle for direction, with no major economic indicators on tap or S&P 500 companies scheduled to report quarterly results until January.

European shares were down 0.2 percent in light trading after short-term Italian debt costs were cut in half at an auction that improved confidence about demand for Thursday's long-term bond sale.

"The drop in yields, while significant, isn't enough to lift the market," said Neal Neilinger, chief investment officer at Aladdin Capital in Stamford, Connecticut, which has $10.5 billion in assets under management.

"We're in a quiet period as it is, and no one is changing their views on Europe because of this."

The Dow Jones industrial average fell 61.98 points, or 0.50 percent, at 12,229.37. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index was down 7.24 points, or 0.57 percent, at 1,258.19. The Nasdaq Composite Index dropped 18.73 points, or 0.71 percent, at 2,606.47.

The S&P again fell below its 200-day moving average, a key level it has struggled to stay above. With the losses, the benchmark index is close to turning negative again for 2011.

Wall Street movements have been closely correlated to European markets in recent weeks as the region struggles with a debt crisis, but the problems have receded into the background on the lack of new developments.

Still, any sign of improving conditions could spur further gains, with the light volume amplifying any moves.

For the year, the Dow is up 6.2 percent, while the S&P is up 0.6 percent, and the Nasdaq is down 1 percent.

Energy shares were in focus after Iran's navy chief said it would be "easier than drinking a glass of water" for Iran to close off the Strait of Hormuz if foreign sanctions are tightened. Iran warned Tuesday it would stop the flow of oil through the strait.

The S&P energy sector was off 0.8 percent as U.S. crude futures slipped 0.7 percent and Brent crude was off 0.6 percent.