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US stocks skip sideways for another week

US markets butted against a stubborn ceiling for another week, ending up Friday where they were a week earlier after five days of jerky but finally inconclusive trade.

The S&P 500 could claim a seventh straight weekly gain -- by adding just 0.1 percent -- but that just underscored the stall of the bull run since December.

Mixed corporate earnings -- with more modest forecasts for this year -- offset the excitement generated by new mega-deals.

Those included the long-expected merger of American Airlines and US Airways, and the surprise $28 billion buyout of ketchup icon HJ Heinz, by Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway and the Brazilian-led 3G Capital.

Meanwhile economic data was positive enough to support stocks at these levels, but with enough weak signs to discourage a push higher.

On Friday the Federal Reserve said industrial production shrank slightly in January -- but it also said the fourth quarter of 2012 was much better than earlier reported.

At the end of trade Friday, the Dow Jones Industrial Average was at 13,981.76, less than 0.1 percent below its level a week earlier.

The S&P 500 was at 1,519.79, up 0.1 percent, and the Nasdaq Composite was at 3,192.03, also down less that 0.1 percent.

The S&P and Dow both struck fresh five-year highs during the week. The S&P closed just above 1,521 on Thursday, a level last hit in October 2007. And the Dow topped 14,018 on Tuesday, its best since October 2007.

But traders could not find enough reason to keep them buying at those levels. The domestic political battle over austere budget cuts continued, and eurozone data showed a fourth quarter recession deeper than expected.

Friday's trade added a dose of potential weak-economy reality: stocks sank after a media report cited internal emails from retail giant Walmart calling its early February sales a "total disaster."

That sent Walmart and other retailers tumbling: the emails cited the increase in paycheck deductions for social security from the beginning of the year.

The big corporate deals of the week, encouraged by the still rock-bottom interest rate environment, however suggested that more mergers and acquisition action could deliver fresh life into stocks.

The takeover of Heinz, with shareholders being offered a 20 percent premium over the company's share price prior to the announcement, suggested that the buyers, known as canny long-term investors, see at least some sectors of the market as undervalued.

That could lead to an acceleration in mergers and acquisitions, experts said.

"M&A is among the last financial market categories to recover from the financial crisis because it requires particular conviction and clarity about macro economic dynamics," said Marshall Sonenshine, chairman of the New York investment bank Sonenshine Partners.

"It won't snap back, but it is improving."

Still hanging over the markets is the "sequester" -- $85 billion in automatic government spending cuts programmed for March 1 -- if feuding politicians cannot find a milder alternative to trim the deficit.

With the sequester cuts likely to lead to layoffs especially in the defense industry, President Barack Obama has offered an alternative that includes more revenue increases, but Republicans reject that.

"It appears most Congressional Republicans would rather go through with the sequester as written than agree to another tax increase," said Chris Low at FTN Financial.

"So the sequester is likely to happen, though it could be amended later in the year when the budget is written."