As oil surges, US stocks drift sideways in another muted day

Major U.S. stock indexes drifted sideways in afternoon trading Monday as a rally in energy companies was mostly held in check by broader declines elsewhere in the market.

Energy sector stocks climbed along with the price of crude oil, which surged after the U.S. government moved to further block Iranian oil exports.

The Trump administration said it will no longer exempt any countries from U.S. sanctions if they continue to buy Iranian oil, including China and Japan, the world’s second and third largest economies. That helped the price of benchmark U.S. crude touch its highest level since October, and energy stocks in the S&P 500 jumped 2.1%.

Communications and technology companies were also headed higher. Most other areas of the stock market were weaker, led by real estate companies. Raw material producers and health care stocks also fell.

Homebuilders slumped following a report showing that sales of previously owned U.S. homes fell in March.

The S&P 500 flip-flopped between modest gains and losses trading, much as it has the last few weeks.

The U.S. market has remained notably calm in recent weeks after following up a nearly 20% plummet late last year with a nearly mirror-opposite rebound. Investors will be getting several potentially market-moving reports later this week, including a cavalcade of corporate earnings reports and a read on how much U.S. economic growth slowed during the first three months of the year.

KEEPING SCORE: The S&P 500 was up by less than 0.1% as of 1:36 p.m. Eastern time after earlier being down as much as 0.3%. The index is within 0.8% of its record high, which was set in September.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 46 points, or 0.2%, to 26,513. The Nasdaq composite rose 0.1%. The Russell 2000 index of small-cap stocks dropped 0.4%.

Stock trading was relatively muted around the world, with markets in London, Frankfurt and other major markets closed for holidays.

BUBBLING CRUDE: Benchmark U.S. crude surged 2.6% to $65.68 per barrel. The leap tacks further gains onto the price of oil, which has been climbing since dropping below $43 in late December. Brent crude rose 2.9% to $74.08 per barrel.

President Donald Trump made the move with the intent of bringing Iran’s oil exports to zero. If successful, the move could increase demand for oil from U.S. allies Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates but would heighten political tensions.

“The big fear now and perhaps the markets’ next significant catalyst, will Iran retaliate with force?” said Stephen Innes of SPI Asset Management in a report.

Marathon Oil climbed 6% and Exxon Mobil gained 2.4%.

HOUSING STUMBLE: Homebuilders declined broadly after a report showing that sales of previously owned U.S. homes fell in March after a huge gain the previous month. The National Association of Realtors said home sales slid 4.9% to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 5.21 million last month. That followed an 11.2% gain in February, the largest monthly pickup in more than three years.

The March sales tally is the latest sign of a national housing market that’s struggling to rebound after slumping in the second half of last year as mortgage rates surged.

Beazer Homes USA was among the biggest decliners, sliding 3.2%.

CUT DEEP: Intuitive Surgical tumbled 6.7%, the largest loss in the S&P 500, after the robotic surgery system company reported weaker earnings for the latest quarter than Wall Street expected.

SUPPLY SURPRISE: W.W. Grainger dropped 5.4% after the supplier of maintenance, repair and operating products reported weaker revenue for the latest quarter than analysts expected.

CLEANING UP: Kimberly-Clark jumped 7.5% for the biggest gain in the S&P 500 after the maker of Huggies diapers and Kleenex tissue reported stronger earnings and revenue for its latest quarter than analysts expected.

IT’S QUIET OUT THERE: The stock market has been notably calm, with no move for the S&P 500 of more than 0.7% in either direction after April 1.

Bigger moves may be ahead, with a crush of corporate earnings reports due this week. More than a quarter of the companies in the S&P 500 are scheduled to report, including Amazon.com, Exxon Mobil and Facebook.

Expectations are low for earnings broadly, and analysts are forecasting the first drop in profit for the S&P 500 in nearly three years. But most companies are reporting stronger profits than Wall Street had been expecting, which is typical.

Later this week, investors will also get a preliminary read on the economy’s strength during the first quarter of the year. Economists expect the report to show that growth slowed to 1.8% from 2.2% in the fourth quarter of last year.

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AP Business Writer Stan Choe contributed to this report.

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