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 gained 4.4 percent to $20.51 and Gap Inc rose 3.3 percent to $32.44. The Morgan Stanley retail index <.MVR> climbed 1.5 percent.
The Dow Jones industrial average <.DJI> was up 21.56 points, or 0.16 percent, at 13,528.88. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index <.SPX> was up 0.98 points, or 0.07 percent, at 1,471.66. The Nasdaq Composite Index <.IXIC> was down 8.25 points, or 0.26 percent, at 3,109.26.
Also keeping investors on edge was 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.
An expected lackluster earnings season, too, 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 reported a sharp rise in quarterly profit, but the stock fell 1.7 percent to $40.33 on worries that growth in orders was slowing. The PHLX housing sector index <.HGX> declined 0.3 percent.
(Additional reporting by Chuck Mikolajczak; Editing by Kenneth Barry and Nick Zieminski)