Stocks eased off their lows to close mixed Monday, but gains were limited as concerns over the "fiscal cliff" and Greece resurfaced.
“Going out and making big bets in any one direction is probably not fruitful until we get some kind of clearer road," said Bob Doll, chief equity strategist at Nuveen Asset Management. But the good news is that [the fiscal cliff] is so big that they can’t just sweep it under a rug.”
The Dow Jones Industrial Average declined 42.31 points, or 0.33 percent, to close at 12,967.37, led by AmEx and Coca-Cola . The blue-chip index was down more than 100 points in its session low.
The S&P 500 slid 2.86 points, or 0.20 percent, to finish at 1,406.29. The Nasdaq edged up 9.93 points, or 0.33 percent, to end at 2,976.78.
The CBOE Volatility Index, widely considered the best gauge of fear in the market, ended above 15.
Among the key S&P sectors, telecoms and energy led the laggards, while utilities gained.
"Unfortunately for the last 10 days, with the House and Congress gone for the Thanksgiving recess... much progress hasn't been made," said Dick Durbin, the No. 2 Senate Democrat.
Serious negotiations are expected to resume this week as policymakers return to Washington from the Thanksgiving holiday. Democratic and Republican lawmakers have been trying to convince the public that they are willing to compromise and can reach a deal before year end.
President Barack Obama is scheduled to meet with a second group of CEOs on Wednesday to discuss the deficit plan, according to the Wall Street Journal, two weeks after he met with a dozen chief executives including Jeff Immelt of GE and Indra Nooyi of PepsiCo.
"[The] pending U.S. fiscal restraint is likely to be hurdled by a late-year compromise, but that the expected agreement likely will only resolve the short-term fiscal cliff issue," wrote Citigroup in its latest research note.
U.S. stocks rallied more than 1 percent last Friday in a holiday-shortened session amid encouraging signs on the "fiscal cliff" and following some positive economic reports. Major averages soared more than 3 percent last week, logging their best weekly performance in more than five months.
Knight Capital shot higher after news that trading firms Getco and Virtu are pursuing purchase of the entire company. While exact financial terms of the deal is unclear, sources told CNBC that the price for Knight Capital will likely range between $600 million and $700 million.
Europe shares closed lower, dragged by financials, ahead of a meeting of Greece's lenders to decide when it will receive its next tranche of emergency funds.
Euro zone finance ministers, the ECB and the IMF plan are meeting in Brussels to finalize the second bailout package for Greece worth 31.2 billion euros ($40 billion).
Apple rose after Citigroup initiated coverage of the tech giant with a "buy" rating and a $675 price target. Separately, the iPhone maker said it is adding new Samsung devices to its patent-infringement lawsuit.
Facebook jumped after Bernstein upgraded the social-networking giant to "outperform" from "market perform" and raised its price target to $33 from $23. Despite the stock's 40 percent spike in the last three months, the company is still trading well below its IPO price of $38 a share.
Yahoo gained after Goldman Sachs added the Internet company to its "conviction buy list" and upped its price target to $24 from $22.
And Research In Motion was upgraded to "sector outperformer" from "sector underperformer" at CIBC World Markets. The brokerage also lifted its price target on the struggling BlackBerry maker to $17 from $8.
Google edged lower after the CEO of ICOA claimed that the press release announcing the search-engine giant has acquired the small tech company for $400 million was a "hoax," adding his firm has never been in acquisition talks.
A survey by the National Retail Federation showed a record 247 million shoppers visited stores and websites over the Black Friday weekend, up from 226 million last year. U.S. retail sales jumped an estimated 12.8 percent on the previous year over the four-day holiday weekend, according to the organization.
Amazon.com , Best Buy and Ebay traded higher.
Meanwhile, Wal-Mart said it had its "best ever" Black Friday events, selling 1.8 million towels, 1.3 million televisions, 1.3 million dolls and 250,000 bicycles.
McGraw-Hill rallied after the publishing company announced it will sell its education business to Apollo Global Management in a deal worth $2.5 billion.