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Stocks mostly higher despite new fears over Greece

NEW YORK — U.S stocks inched mostly higher in light trading on Monday as investors shrugged off falling energy prices, a plunging Russian ruble and fears that Greece could renege on its bailout.

Stocks wavered throughout the day, with the Dow Jones industrial average moving between gains and losses several times. In the end the blue-chip index closed down slightly, but other major indexes recorded tiny gains.

“Most of the bad news came from overseas … and that makes the U.S. market more attractive,” said Jack Ablin, chief investment officer at BMO Private Bank. “Investors are shifting money from overseas.”

The Standard & Poor’s 500 index rose 1.80 points, or 0.1 percent, to 2,090.57. The Dow fell 15.48 points, or 0.1 percent, to 18,038.23. The Nasdaq composite rose 0.05 points to 4,806.91

With little economic or company developments in the U.S., investors focused on news that Greece will have to call snap elections next month that could bring more economic turmoil to the country. The opposition Syriza party, which is against terms of the international bailout of the country, is leading in the polls.

The Athens exchange closed with a loss of 4 percent after falling as much as 11 percent earlier. Several European markets also slumped, with Italy’s benchmark index losing 1.1 percent.

In Russia, the ruble fell 8 percent against the U.S. dollar after a rally last week. Russian monetary officials have made stabilizing the currency a priority amid slumping oil revenues and unease about the country’s economic outlook.

Despite the troubles abroad developing for several weeks now, U.S. stocks have been rising on optimism over the U.S. economy.

Employers are on track to hire nearly 3 million workers this year, the most since the dot-com boom year of 1999. The unemployment rate has dropped to 5.8 percent, down about a percentage point since the start of the year. And the U.S. economy grew at an annualized rate of 5 percent in the July-September quarter, the fastest in 11 years.

On Monday, six of 10 industry sectors in the S&P 500 rose, led by a 1.1 percent gain in utilities.

Trading was light ahead of the New Year’s holiday later this week. Volume was about two-thirds of the recent average on the New York Stock Exchange

John Manley, chief equity strategist at Wells Fargo Fund Management, said he expects that stocks are being pushed higher in part from what he calls “sleepy heads,” investors who tend to put off plowing money into IRAs until the closing days of each year.

“All of a sudden they wake up, and realize, ‘I need to do this to get my tax deduction,’” he says.

The S&P 500 has hit record highs more than 50 times so far this year and has tripled from the 12-year low it reached in the depths of the financial crisis in 2009.

The index now trades at 17.8 times what companies in the index are expected to earn over the next 12 months, according to FactSet, a data provider. That is above the 10-year average of about 15 times.

In other developments overseas, China’s official Xinhua News Agency reported Sunday that regulators will change accounting rules for bank deposits to free up more money for lending. That could help boost economic growth, which slumped to a five-year low in the latest quarter.

The news helped lift Asian markets. Hong Kong’s Hang Seng index gained 1.8 percent.

Among stocks making news:

— The Manitowoc Co. rose $1.87, or 9 percent, to $22.79 on news that activist investor Carl Icahn took a 7.8 percent stake in the crane maker and is pushing for the company to split into two.

— Gilead Sciences rose $3.51 to $97.30 for a gain of 3.7 percent, one of the biggest in the S&P 500. The biotechnology company expanded an agreement with a Johnson & Johnson unit to develop and sell an HIV treatment.

Benchmark U.S. crude dropped $1.12 to $53.61 a barrel in New York. On Friday, the contract fell $1.11 to settle at $54.73.

In other futures trading on the NYMEX:

— Wholesale gasoline fell 5.6 cents to close at $1.453 a gallon.

— Heating oil fell 5.9 cents to close at $1.849 a gallon.

— Natural gas rose 18.2 cents to close at $3.189 per 1,000 cubic feet.

In metals trading, gold lost $13.40 to $1,181.90 an ounce, silver fell 37 cents to $15.78 an ounce and copper edged up less than a penny to $2.82 a pound.

The dollar rose to 120.71 yen from 120.35 Friday. The euro edged down to $1.2153 from Friday’s $1.2205.

The 10-year Treasury note rose. The yield fell to 2.21 percent from 2.25 percent on Friday.