NEW YORK -- The stock market is struggling to take it to the next level.
For a third straight day the Standard & Poor’s 500 index traded above its record close but fell back to end below it.
An early move higher Wednesday was led by retailers and home builders, but the gains mostly petered out in the afternoon. By the closing bell the index was up just a fraction of a point.
After rebounding from losses early in the year, when investors were concerned about the outlook for growth in emerging markets and the U.S., the stock market now appears to be at a crossroads.
While investors seem comfortable attributing the recent weakness in economic reports to the unusually cold weather, they also appear reluctant to push stocks higher before they see more evidence of growth.
"This is a market that has been trying to decipher how much of the negative news is weather-based, against concerns that we have moved into a soft patch," said Quincy Krosby, a market strategist at Prudential Financial.
The S&P 500 edged up four-hundredths of a point to close at 1,845.16, three points short of its record high close of 1,848.38 set Jan. 15. The index climbed as high as 1,852.65.
The Dow Jones industrial average rose 18.75, or 0.1 percent, to 16,198.41. The Nasdaq composite rose 4.48 points, or 0.1 percent, to 4,292.06.
Home builder stocks rose sharply after the government reported that U.S. sales of new homes jumped in January at the fastest pace in more than five years. That’s a hopeful sign after a slowdown in the housing market last year caused by higher interest rates. PulteGroup rose 57 cents, or 2.8 percent, to $21.25 and Lennar rose $1.52, or 3.6 percent, to $43.78.
Retailers rose after several encouraging earnings reports.
Lowe’s climbed $2.61, or 5.4 percent, to $50.72. The company’s net income rose 6 percent in the most recent quarter as the home-improvement retailer continued to benefit from a recovery in the housing market. The company also announced a new $5 billion stock repurchase program.
Abercrombie & Fitch jump-
ed $4.05, or 11.3 percent, to $40.04 after posting earnings that exceeded the expectations of Wall Street analysts. The retailer also initiated a $150 million accelerated share buyback program.