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Stocks tread water as next fiscal showdown looms

NEW YORK (AP) -- The stock market crept higher in midday trading Thursday, one day after the Dow Jones industrial average posted its biggest gain in more than a year.

Retailers reported mixed sales and the prospect of a new budget battle in Congress loomed.

The Standard & Poor's 500 index inched up one point to 1,463 and the Nasdaq composite rose four points to 3,116.

UnitedHealth Group held back the Dow, sinking $1.65 to $52.88, a 3 percent drop, after analysts at Deutsche Bank and other firms cut their ratings on the insurer's stock. The Dow was up just seven points to 13,419 as of 12:22 EST.

“It's natural to relax a bit after such a huge day as yesterday,” said Lawrence Creatura, who manages a small-company fund at Federated Investors.

The Dow soared 308 points Wednesday, its largest point gain since December 2011. The rally was ignited after lawmakers passed a bill to avoid a combination of government spending cuts and tax increases called the “fiscal cliff.”

That deal gave the market a jump start into the new year. The Dow and the S&P 500 are already up more than 2 percent.

“We're off to a very strong start,” Creatura said. “The dominant reason is the resolution of the fiscal cliff. But January is usually a strong month, as investors all shift money into the market at the same time. When the calendar flips, it's as if you're allowed the begin the race anew.”

Economists had warned that the full force of the fiscal cliff could drag the country into a recession. The law passed late Tuesday night averted that outcome for now, but other fiscal squabbles are likely in the months ahead. Congress must raise the government's borrowing limit soon or be forced to choose between slashing spending or paying its debts.

Ross Stores surged 6 percent in early trading. The retailer said sales at stores open at least a year increased 11 percent during the holiday shopping season. Ross Stores rose $3.65 to $58.09.

Nordstom Inc. surged 2 percent after the department-store chain also reported strong holiday sales, especially in the South and Midwest. Nordstrom's stock was up $1.21 to $54.84.

Other retailers struggled during the holidays as shoppers held out for deep discounts.

Family Dollar Stores sank 12 percent after reporting earnings that fell short of analysts' projections. The company also forecast a weaker outlook for the current period and full year. Family Dollar's stock lost $7.25 to $56.75.

Among other stocks making big moves:

_ Transocean jumped $3.33, or 7 percent, to $49.57. The owner of the oil rig that sank in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 after an explosion killed 11 workers reached a $1.4 billion settlement with the Justice Department.

_ Hormel Foods, known for making Spam and other meat products, said that it's buying Skippy, the country's No. 2 peanut butter brand, from Unilever for about $700 million. Hormel's stock jumped 5 percent, or $1.56, to $33.60.

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