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Stocks end best January in 15 years mixed

By msnbc.com news services

Stocks closed Tuesday mixed, having struggled following a report that U.S. consumer confidence unexpectedly fell in January as more Americans worried about the country's weak job market.

But the day capped the best start for stocks in 15 years.

In what was mostly a slow and steady climb, the Dow Jones industrial average rose 3.4 percent in January and the Standard & Poor's 500 gained 4.4 percent, the best performances for both indexes to open a year since 1997.

Investors were encouraged by modest but welcome improvement in the U.S. economy, including an 8.5 percent unemployment rate, the lowest in almost three years. Corporate profits didn't wow anyone — except Apple's — but they were good enough.

"I don't see anything really glamorous or tremendous about the economy or earnings," said Jerry Harris, chief investment strategist at the brokerage Sterne Agee. "But I think they're very acceptable, and things are grinding along."

Key earnings also drove trading Tuesday.

Quarterly profits from drugmakers Pfizer Inc and Eli Lilly & Co both topped expectations. But Pfizer trimmed its 2012 view and Lilly repeated an outlook calling for a drop in 2012 earnings.

RadioShack Corp's stock price plunged one day after warning of a drop in fourth-quarter profit.

A number of other major companies reported results, including Exxon Mobil Corp, U.S. Steel Corp and United Parcel Service Inc.

The results reflected a mixed picture of corporate strength, continuing a trend this earning season.

Stocks started the session optimistically after Greek Prime Minister Lucas Papademos said he hopes to reach a deal with private creditors over the nation’s debt by the end of the week.

U.S. single-family home prices fell more than expected in November, according to the S&P/Case-Shiller composite index, highlighting a sector that continues to struggle to make a meaningful recovery. Futures moved little after the data.

U.S. stocks fell for much of Monday's session, but an afternoon rally cut losses in a sign of the underlying resilience the market has shown early in the year. The S&P held above the psychologically important 1,300 level after crossing it for the first time in six months earlier in January.

Reuters and Associated Press contributed to this report.