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A Wal-Mart store in Springfield, Ill. (Seth Perlman/AP)
A Wal-Mart store in Springfield, Ill. (Seth Perlman/AP)

The close: Wal-Mart scare flusters market Add to ...

Stocks closed relatively flat on Friday, recovering from an afternoon dip that followed a report suggesting that U.S. payroll tax increases were hurting February sales at Wal-Mart Stores Inc.

The S&P 500 closed at 1,519.79, down 1.59 points or 0.1 per cent – though the index had fallen as much as 7 points before recovering. The Dow Jones industrial average closed at 13,981.76, up 8.37 points or less than 0.1 per cent, recovering about 75 points from its afternoon low. In Canada, the S&P/TSX composite index closed at 12,686.63, down 35.16 points or 0.3 per cent.

The lacklustre moves, which nonetheless left the U.S. benchmark index with a seventh consecutive week of gains, followed upbeat readings on U.S. consumer confidence and New York region manufacturing.

The Empire State manufacturing index showed that activity in the New York region rebounded to a reading of 10 from negative 7.8 last month – beating forecasts and signalling growth.

The Thomson Reuters/University of Michigan consumer sentiment index for February showed a preliminary reading of 76.3, marking a tree-month high.

Stocks had wobbled in afternoon trading, with Bloomberg News reporting that an executive at Wal-Mart had emailed that February sales were a “total disaster” – raising broader concerns about consumer spending. Wal-Mart shares ended 2.2 per cent lower.

It was a big day for Canadian telecom companies. Rogers Communications Inc. rose 4.1 per cent after reporting on Thursday a 30 per cent increase in its net earnings, to $455-million. The company’s chief executive, Nadir Mohamed, said he will step down from the top job in one year.

Telus Corp. reported a 23 per cent increase in its earnings, to $291-million, and 6 per cent growth in revenues. The shares rose 1.5 per cent.

However, key commodities were weak. Gold fell to $1,609.50 (U.S.) an ounce, down $26 and touching a six month low as billionaire investor George Soros reported cutting his gold holdings in half.

Crude oil fell to $95.86 a barrel, down $1.45.

Among Canadian commodity producers, Suncor Energy Inc. fell 1.4 per cent and Barrick Gold Corp. fell 1.9 per cent, close to its lowest level since 2008.

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