The Dow Jones industrial average narrowly missed 13,000. Again.
A burst of selling at the closing bell drove the Dow lower after it hovered around the milestone for most of the afternoon. The average finished the day down a sliver, 0.01 percent, and about 19 points shy of the mark.
It was close enough that 9 cents added to the price of each of the 30 stocks in the Dow would have made the difference. And it almost did: American Express lost 14 cents in the last three minutes of trading. Boeing lost a dime in the last two minutes.
When trading volume is light -- as it was Monday, with 3.6 billion shares exchanged -- someone can come in "with a big sell at the end of the day that can sometimes force it one way or the other," said Joe Bell, senior equity analyst at Schaeffer's Investment Research.
The Dow broke through 13,000 several times last week but hasn't closed above that level since May 19, 2008, four months before the fall of Lehman Brothers investment bank and the worst of the financial crisis.
For the day, the Dow lost 1.44 points and closed at 12,981.51. The Standard & Poor's 500 index rose 1.85 points to 1,367.59, a 3 1/2 -year high. The Nasdaq composite index rose 2.41 points to close at 2,966.16, its highest since December 2000.
The Dow fell 100 points at the open Monday, then climbed back above 13,000 after a report that the number of Americans who signed contracts to buy homes rose in January to the highest in almost two years.
The National Association of Realtors said its index of sales agreements rose 2 percent last month to a reading of 97, the highest since April 2010. A reading of 100 is considered healthy.
Financial stocks led the industries gaining ground Monday. They rose 0.9 percent as a group. All nine of the other industry groups in the S&P 500 finished with small gains or narrow losses.
Scott Wren, senior equity strategist for Wells Fargo Advisors in St. Louis, said investors have gotten ahead of themselves since October.
He said he thinks U.S. economic growth is likely to be a mild 2 percent this year, as there are fewer people working now than there were at the end of 2007 and Europe may be in a recession.