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Stocks drift as oil slips and Europe struggles
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NEW YORK (AP) — U.S. stocks drifted sideways Monday afternoon as the price of oil edged lower and more gloomy news about the global economy emerged.

Goldman Sachs lowered its outlook for crude prices and business confidence in Germany, Europe's largest economy, declined for a sixth straight month.

KEEPING SCORE: As of 3:35 p.m., the Standard & Poor's 500 index slipped three points, or 0.2 percent, to 1,960.

The Nasdaq composite was fractionally higher at 4,483, while the Dow Jones industrial average edged up one point to 16,807.

NOT SO BAD: The stock market had its best performance in nearly two years last week. The strong gain helped the S&P 500 recover from a four-week slump. The benchmark index had lost almost 6 percent by mid-October, but is now down just a fraction — 0.6 percent for the month.

CHOPPY TRADING: What's behind the recent turbulence? David Joy, chief market strategist at Ameriprise Financial, thinks it's tied to actions by the world's central banks. The Federal Reserve is winding down its $4 trillion bond-buying program — known as QE — this month. And many investors expect the European Central Bank to launch its own program on a similar scale.

"We're approaching the end of QE, and I think the market is going through a period when people are asking, how important is it to lack that support?" Joy said. "The open question is how robust is the economy you're left with. Is it strong enough to sustain earnings growth?"

OIL SLIPPING: Mounting evidence of rising supplies and weak demand continued to weigh on the price of crude oil, which has dropped from a high of $107 a barrel in June. Goldman Sachs was the latest Wall Street bank to lower its forecast for prices in a report out Sunday, saying OPEC was unlikely to cut exports to try and push prices back up. Benchmark U.S. crude fell 1 cent to close at $81.00 a barrel in New York after starting the day sharply lower. Brent crude, a benchmark for international oils used by many U.S. refineries, fell 30 cents to close at $85.13 on the ICE Futures exchange in London.

OIL STOCKS: The slide in crude tugged down the stocks of oil and gas companies and firms that provide them services. Exxon Mobil fell 1 percent, and Nabors Industries' 7 percent drop was the worst in the S&P 500.

MERCK STRUGGLES: Many large companies are turning in quarterly results this week. One of the bigger names, Merck, said Monday its third-quarter earnings fell because of lower pharmaceutical sales. The company also scaled back its most optimistic forecasts for full-year profits and sales. The news knocked Merck's stock down $1.17, or 2 percent, to $56.44.

STRESSFUL TESTS: The European Central Bank said that 13 of Europe's 130 biggest banks failed a review of their finances and need an extra 10 billion euros ($12.5 billion) to strengthen themselves. The bank that did worst in the tests, Italy's Monte dei Paschi di Siena, saw its shares plunge 18 percent. Those that passed, however, traded higher.

QUOTE: "The stress tests showed healthy balance sheets in most major institutions while those found with capital gaps are mostly contained in periphery nations," said Desmond Chua, of CMC Markets, in a commentary.

GERMAN DATA: European stock markets swung lower later in the day when Germany's Ifo index of business confidence showed a fall for the sixth consecutive month in October, the latest in a string of disappointing data. Some analysts suggested lower oil prices and a weaker euro should help industrial companies and exporters and keep the country from falling into a recession.

EUROPE'S MARKETS: Germany's DAX lost 0.9 percent, while France's CAC 40 dropped 0.8 percent. Britain's FTSE 100 dipped 0.4 percent.

FED MEETING: Many investors expect the Federal Reserve to confirm that its ending its bond-buying program after it wraps up a two-day meeting on Wednesday. The Fed's efforts have kept long-term interest rates low and also helped boost stocks as investors sought higher returns. Recent mixed signals about the strength of the U.S. recovery prompted speculation that the Fed might let the program continue for longer, but many analysts consider that unlikely.