Stocks pared losses and pulled near the unchanged mark on Tuesday as tech heavyweight Apple came off earlier lows and economic data helped retailers advance.
Apple (AAPL.O) fell for the third day in a row as the biggest drag on both the S&P 500 and Nasdaq 100 .NDX after reports on Monday of cuts to orders for iPhone parts. Shares were down nearly 2.5 percent at $489.11, rebounding somewhat from a session low of $483.84, its lowest level since February.
Retailer stocks advanced and helped to minimize the market's decline after a government report that retail sales rose more than expected in December was seen as a favorable sign for fourth-quarter growth. However, a separate report showed manufacturing activity in New York state contracted for the sixth month in a row in January.
"It's trying to push its way up in here, the question is, has Apple stabilized maybe a little bit down here? The retail sales numbers were really good, much better than expected this morning and that is helping the whole retail group," said Paul Mendelsohn, chief investment strategist at Windham Financial Services in Charlotte, Vermont.
"The bulls are clearly trying to take control of this market and hold it up here. There is clearly buying on any of the dips."
American Eagle Outfitters Inc (AEO.N) gained 4 percent to $20.43 and Gap Inc (GPS.N) rose 3 percent to $32.32. The Morgan Stanley retail index .MVR climbed 1.2 percent.
Investors also continue to eye the looming debt ceiling debate. On Monday, President Barack Obama rejected any negotiations with Republicans over raising the U.S. debt ceiling. The United States could default on its debt if Congress does not increase the borrowing limit.
Resolving the debt ceiling debate is more a question of how than if. Investors don't expect a U.S. default, but they are also wary of another eleventh-hour agreement like the one in August 2011.
The Dow Jones industrial average .DJI shed 1.42 points, or 0.01 percent, to 13,505.90. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index .SPX dipped 0.46 points, or 0.03 percent, to 1,470.22. The Nasdaq Composite Index .IXIC lost 6.30 points, or 0.20 percent, to 3,111.20.
An expected lackluster earnings season also kept investors from taking aggressive bets. Analyst estimates for the quarter have fallen sharply since October. S&P 500 earnings growth is now seen up just 1.8 percent from a year ago, Thomson Reuters data showed.
Homebuilder Lennar (LEN.N) reported a sharp rise in quarterly profit, but the stock fell 2.1 percent to $40.16 on worries that growth in orders was slowing. The PHLX housing sector index .HGX declined 0.3 percent.
Express Inc (EXPR.N) surged 22.5 percent to $17.22 as the biggest percentage gainer on the New York Stock Exchange after the apparel retailer raised its fourth-quarter and full year 2012 outlook.
Dell Inc (DELL.O) shares added to earlier gains, up 5 percent to $12.91 after sources said talks to take the computer maker private are in an advanced stage.
Facebook (FB.O) declined 1 percent to $30.66 after the company unveiled a "graph search" feature that CEO Mark Zuckerberg said would help its billion-plus users sort through content within the social network and its content feeds.