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Stocks struggle after durable goods data

Stocks were struggling Wednesday after a weaker-than-expected reading on durable goods orders.

Futures had been in solidly higher territory as several governments, including the United States, considered releasing oil reserves to ease high prices, seen as an obstacle to recovery.

New orders for U.S. manufactured goods rose less than expected in February and a gauge of future business investment also fell short of forecasts, the Commerce Department said.

"This number is another piece of the puzzle that seems to be coming together to form a picture that the economy is slowly improving, but it is definitely a halting recovery where we're not accelerating to any great degree," said Liam Dalton, president of Axiom Capital Management Inc in New York.

Crude oil futures fell about 1 percent, weighed by the possible release of strategic oil reserves by the U.S. and European nations. Oil prices are up 7.8 percent this year on Middle East tensions.

Analysts said further upside in the S&P 500 was limited after gains of more than 12 percent this year. The benchmark index is on track for its best quarter since the third quarter of 2009.

Large-cap shares, many already at 52-week highs, could continue to outperform as money managers dress up their portfolios ahead of the quarter-end on Friday.

A total of 175 stocks on the New York Stock Exchange hit new 52-week highs Tuesday, including Dow components Home Depot Inc, Walt Disney Co and International Business Machines Corp.

Much of the market's recent gains have come after accommodative monetary policies by central banks globally, including the U.S. Federal Reserve.

On Tuesday, Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke, asked in an ABC News interview about the potential for more quantitative easing, said the Fed wasn't taking any options off the table.

Family Dollar Stores Inc reported second-quarter earnings that beat expectations, but same-store sales rose less than the company forecast.

Late Tuesday, both Sealy Corp and PVH Corp reported quarterly earnings that beat expectations. Sealy rose 12 percent to $2.10 in premarket trading, while PVH Corp was up 0.7 percent at $90.40.

Apple Inc will offer buyers of its new iPad in Australia a refund after it was accused of misleading advertising. The stock hit a new all-time high of $616.28 and closed with a market capitalization of $572.92 billion.

U.S. stocks retreated from near four-year highs on Tuesday, though gains in technology names limited the Nasdaq's decline.

Reuters contributed to this report.