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Stocks rise slightly as companies report higher earnings last quarter

Stocks rose modestly Wednesday after companies reported higher earnings but gave mixed forecasts about how the fragile economy and rising costs will affect their growth.

Target Corp., Staples Inc. and Dell Inc. reported earnings for last quarter that were above analysts' forecasts. Companies in the Standard & Poor's 500 are on track to report higher profits for a ninth straight quarter.

But economic growth is weak around the world, and some economists worry that a second recession may be coming. That could hurt companies' earnings in the future. That prospect kept investors from buying with more enthusiasm Wednesday.

Dell's forecast added to investors' concerns: It cut its prediction for revenue growth this year. Target and Staples gave profit forecasts that were above Wall Street's expectations.

The Dow Jones industrial average rose 4.28 points to 11,410.21. The S&P 500 rose 1.12, or 0.1 percent, to 1,193.88. The Nasdaq composite fell 11.97, or 0.5 percent, to 2,511.48.

Seven of the 10 sectors that make up the S&P 500 rose. The biggest drops were in technology stocks, which fell 0.8 percent after Dell cut its forecast.

"There are a whole bunch of contradictory signals in the system now, and it's hard to tell which way to go," said Charlie Smith, chief investment officer of Fort Pitt Capital Group, which has just over $1 billion in assets under management.

Investors are still worried about Europe. Some countries have borrowed so much that they may not be able to repay their bonds, and economic growth there has slowed. Concerns about a possible default by a European country have dominated the market in recent weeks, along with worries about the slow U.S. economy.

Another concern Wednesday: Companies are contending with rising costs. Higher food prices helped push inflation at the wholesale level to 0.2 percent in July, according to a government report. That compares with a 0.4 percent drop in June but is still well below inflation levels earlier this year when violence in the Middle East forced oil prices higher. In February, wholesale prices rose 1.5 percent.

Economists say rising inflation reduces the chances that the Federal Reserve could announce another round of bond purchases to help the economy, a move called quantitative easing. The Fed ended its second round of purchases, known as QE2, in June. "QE3 could be a hard sell," given higher inflation, Credit Suisse economists wrote. They expect the government to report today that consumer prices rose 0.2 percent in July.

Nearly three stocks rose Wednesday for every two that fell on the New York Stock Exchange. Consolidated trading volume was relatively light at 3.9 billion shares, the lowest in three weeks.

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