Renewed worries about the region's debt crisis weighed on the Dow Jones industrial average on Wednesday, and held the Standard & Poor's 500 index back from reaching an all-time high.
Investors are watching to see if Cyprus can shore up its banking system. They are also concerned about Italy, where political parties are struggling to form a new government.
The Dow fell 33.49 points to close at 14,526.16, a loss of 0.2 percent. It dropped as many as 120 points in morning trading then spent the rest of the day climbing back.
The Standard & Poor's 500 index slipped 0.92 to 1,562.85, less than three points short of its all-time high set in October 2007.
Bad news from Europe and good news from the U.S. have tossed the stock market around over the past week. Stocks slumped Monday as Cyprus scrambled to rescue its banks. They rallied Tuesday on stronger home prices and a jump in factory orders.
"There are still plenty of worries about (Europe's) banking system," said J.J. Kinahan, chief derivatives strategist at TD Ameritrade. "But the U.S. really is on a nice little roll."
Kinahan said he thought the S&P 500 could make another run at its record high on Thursday.
Cyprus is preparing to reopen its banks on Thursday after a nearly two-week shutdown. An international bailout requires people with large bank balances to help pay for the rescue.
In Italy, a leading political party failed in its attempt to form a new government. The stalemate has raised fears that the country will be unable to manage its deep debts. Italy has the third-largest economy of the 17 countries that use the euro.
Worries also hit Europe's bond markets especially hard. Borrowing rates for Italy and Spain shot higher, a sign of weaker confidence in their financial health. Rates for Germany and France, two of Europe's more stable countries, sank as traders shifted money into their bonds.
In the U.S., the Nasdaq composite inched up 4.04 points, or 0.1 percent, to 3,256.52.
Four of the 10 industry groups in the S&P 500 index edged higher. Utilities and health care, which investors tend to buy when they want to play it safe, made the biggest gains.
Health care is the best performing industry in the S&P this year, up 14 percent. That compares with a 10 percent rise for the S&P 500.
Kim Forrest, a senior equity analyst at Fort Pitt Capital, said it appears that many investors are treating certain stocks as if they were bonds.
"There's a recognition that bonds are overpriced, so people are moving into healthcare and utilities that pay a nice dividend," she said. "Those are pretty boring investments, and by that I mean their prices don't move a lot."
News about Italy also helped drive traders into the safety of U.S. government bonds, pushing benchmark yields to their lowest level this month. The yield on the 10-year Treasury note dropped to 1.84 percent, a steep fall from 1.91 percent late Tuesday.
The S&P 500 closed within three points of its record high of 1,565.15. The stock index hit that peak on Oct. 9, 2007, before the Great Recession and a financial crisis roiled financial markets.
Among other stocks making big moves:
-- Cliffs Natural Resources, an iron ore mining company, plunged 14 percent, the biggest loss in the S&P 500. Analysts warned that falling iron ore prices would likely sink the company's stock. Cliffs fell $2.97 to $18.46.
-- Science Applications International Corp. surged 5 percent after the security and communications technology provider reported a fourth-quarter profit that was better than analysts were expecting. SAIC also announced a special dividend of $1 per share, and its stock gained 50 cents to $13.32.
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