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Stocks improved to mixed levels in afternoon trading today but caution continued to restrain prices.

Traders were relieved that the Federal Reserve Board's policy council meeting ended as expected this afternoon, with central bank governors leaving overnight lending rates unchanged.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average, which has marched to three closing records in a row and to eight new highs in the past 12 sessions, retreated 15.91 to 4,141.43 by 3 p.m.

Broader measures fared slightly better. The New York Stock Exchange composite index dipped 0.32 to 271.40, Standard & Poor's 500 stock index edged up 0.12 to 503.32 and the American Stock Exchange market value index fell 0.43 to 460.76.

Strength in several technology stocks helped the Nasdaq Stock Market hold gains and its composite was ahead 1.05 to 823.68.

The spread between gainers and losers was narrowing on the NYSE where by late afternoon there were 1,003 stocks up, 1,063 down and 815 unchanged.

Volume on the Big Board came to 266.21 million shares with one hour to go, down from 236.72 million at the same point Monday.

Bond prices receded and yields shot up after a surprisingly strong report on consumer confidence. The price of the key 30-year bond skidded about 3/4 point, which drove up its yield to 7.40 percent from 7.32 percent late Monday.

The retailer Limited, which was the second most active NYSE issue, jumped 1 7/8 to 21 1/2 after detailing plans to reconfigure the company into two separate entities, dividing the women's apparel operations from the lingerie and personal care businesses.

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