NEW YORK (AP) — U.S. stock indexes flipped between slight gains and losses on Wednesday as oil prices plunged, ending a four-day rally. Stronger profits for Disney drove its stock higher, pulling the Dow Jones industrial average up.
KEEPING SCORE: The Dow was up 50 points, or 0.3 percent, to 17,716 as of 3 p.m. Eastern time. The broader Standard & Poor's 500 index slipped three points, or 0.1 percent, to 2,047, while the Nasdaq composite rose three points to 4,731.
CRUDE: A recent rebound in oil prices fizzled out as the benchmark contract for U.S. crude dropped $4.15, or 8 percent, to $48.88 a barrel. One factor driving trading was a report that U.S. crude inventories jumped by 6 million barrels last week, more than analysts had forecast. Crude prices had rallied 19 percent over the previous four days as producers canceled exploration projects and cut the number of rigs drilling. Oil has fallen by more than half since last June.
WHAT'S GOING ON? "I think there's a sense of uneasiness and lack of conviction among investors right now," said Terry Sandven, senior equity strategist at U.S. Bank Wealth Management. "You see that in the split personality of the market."
Over the past six trading days, the market has turned in three gains and three losses. Sandven said the volatility is tied to uncertainty over corporate earnings. Falling oil prices and a stronger dollar have pinched companies' profits, forcing investors to second-guess their expectations.
DISNEY: Strong results from theme parks, television channels and sales of merchandise tied to its "Frozen" move drove Walt Disney's earnings up 19 percent. Late Tuesday, Disney reported profit and revenue that topped Wall Street's estimates for the quarter. Its stock surged $7.17, or 8 percent, to $101.26.
Bob Iger, Disney's CEO, said the company was not seeing a hit to attendance from the measles outbreak linked last month to Disney's Southern California parks.
POLO PURVEYOR: Ralph Lauren's stock fell $28.50, or 17 percent, to $142.18, after the retailer reported a drop in quarterly earnings and slashed its sales forecast for the full year. The company spent more to open new stores while revenue stayed nearly flat, held back by a stronger dollar.
OVERALL: The fourth-quarter earnings season looks better than it did just two weeks ago. Nearly three out of four big companies have turned in higher profits than analysts had expected, putting overall earnings on track to rise nearly 7 percent for the quarter, according to S&P Capital IQ. Two weeks ago, the expected increase was just 4 percent.
MERGER: Staples announced that it's buying Office Depot for $6 billion in a widely anticipated merger of the two largest office supply retailers. The cash-and-stock deal comes a little more than a year after Office Depot merged with OfficeMax and still needs approval from regulators. Staples dropped $2.18, or 11 percent, to $16.82.
STEADY: Before the market opened, the payroll processing company ADP reported that U.S. companies added 213,000 jobs last month. The survey of private sector hiring gives a hint of the strength of the labor market before the government's monthly jobs report, which comes out Friday. Economists estimate that American employers added 230,000 workers to their payrolls in January, according to FactSet.
EUROPE: Major markets in Europe ended mixed. France's CAC 40 rose 0.4 percent and Germany's DAX edged up 0.2 percent. Britain's FTSE 100 closed with a loss of 0.2 percent.
ASIA'S DAY: In Japan, the Nikkei 225 stock index surged 2 percent. Hong Kong's Hang Seng added 0.5 percent and South Korea's Kospi climbed 0.6 percent.
CURRENCIES: The euro was little changed at $1.1417. The dollar slipped to 117.40 yen from 117.74 yen.
BONDS: U.S. government bond prices fell, pushing the yield on the 10-year Treasury note up to 1.81 percent.
METALS: The price of gold rose $4.20 to $1,264.50 an ounce, silver rose seven cents to $17.40 an ounce and copper edged up a penny to $2.59 a pound.
OTHER ENERGY TRADING: Brent crude, a benchmark for international oils used by many U.S. refineries, declined $3.75, or 6.5 percent, to close at $54.16 a barrel in London.
In other futures trading on the NYMEX:
— Wholesale gasoline fell 12 cents to $1.482 a gallon.
— Heating oil fell 8 cents to close at $1.767 a gallon.
— Natural gas fell 9.2 cents to close at $2.662 per 1,000 cubic feet.