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Stocks trim most of their earlier losses, end trading flat

By msnbc.com staff and news services

Stocks ended trading flat Wednesday, after steadily fighting their way back from an initial drop early in the session. Worries about the European economy seemed to weigh on investors.

According to preliminary calculations, the Dow Jones industrial average was 13.02 lower, or 0.10 percent, to 12,449.45. The S&P 500 ended 0.39 higher, or 0.03 percent, to 1,292.47. The Nasdaq finished trading up 8.26, or 0.31 percent, to 2,710.76.

"Europe is still the main risk," said Jeffrey Kleintop, chief market strategist at LPL Financial. "Yes, they've been making progress on their budgets, but they clearly have growth problems."

Germany reported that its economy, the largest in Europe, shrank slightly at the end of last year. And the European Union cut its estimate of economic growth to its slowest pace in more than two years.

The European Commission also said Hungary has taken "no effective action" to contain its deficit. Stock markets in Germany and France fell slightly, and the euro dropped half a penny against the dollar, to $1.27.

The United States depends on Europe to buy about 20 percent of its exports, and concerns about Europe have led analysts to lower their profit estimates for U.S. companies.

Judging by the S&P 500 index, investors seem to think earnings could fall much further, Kleintop said. The index is trading at about 13 times the past year's earnings of its companies — close to what it was at the end of 1990, when the economy was in recession. Earnings fell 20 percent during that downturn.

In other economic news, a regular report from the Federal Reserve said the final weeks of 2011 were the economy's strongest since it appeared to be slipping toward recession in late spring.

Consumers spent more freely, factories made more goods, Americans stepped up travel and the auto industry enjoyed its best stretch of the year.

That's the bright picture the Federal Reserve sketched in a survey released Wednesday. It said all but one of its 12 banking districts experienced some growth from late November through the end of the year.