US stocks edge higher at the end of a tough week; oil falls after sharp gains the day before

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NEW YORK — U.S. stocks were flat to slightly higher in a quiet session Friday, giving investors a break after four straight days of losses. The price of oil slipped following a big gain the day before, when traders worried that the escalating conflict in the Middle East would affect the flow of crude from the region.

KEEPING SCORE: The Dow Jones industrial average rose four points, or 0.03 percent, to 17,683 as of 2:50 p.m. Eastern. The Standard & Poor's 500 index added two points, or 0.1 percent, to 2,058 and the Nasdaq composite rose 17 points, or 0.4 percent, to 4,880. The Nasdaq was being lifted partially by biotechnology stocks, which have been battered this week.

OIL PRICES: Benchmark U.S. crude fell $2.56 to close at $48.87 a barrel in New York. That comes after five straight gains. Brent crude, a benchmark for international oils, slumped $2.78 to close at $56.41 a barrel in London.

MIDDLE EAST: The turmoil in Yemen is a key focus for investors, particularly in oil markets. The tensions have erupted into a regional conflict, with Saudi Arabia and its allies bombing Shiite rebels allied with Iran, while Egyptian officials said a ground assault will follow the airstrikes. Iran denounced the Saudi-led air campaign, calling it "a dangerous step."

The military action has turned impoverished and chaotic Yemen into a new front in the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

US GDP IN FOCUS: U.S. economic growth slowed in the fourth quarter and likely cooled even further in the first quarter as severe winter weather took its toll.

The Commerce Department said gross domestic product grew at an annual rate of 2.2 percent in the October-December period, unchanged from its previous estimate a month ago. The economy surged at a 5 percent rate in the third quarter.

NEXT MONTH: Investors are focused on April, when companies will start reporting their quarterly results. The big question is how much the rapidly appreciating dollar has impacted company profits in the first three months of the year, as well as how much the cold weather has impacted business activity.

"I think the dollar is going to be a headwind, but I don't think it's going to be as bad as people think," said Scott Wren, a global equity strategist at Wells Fargo Advisors.

CHEMISTRY: Dow Chemical rose $1.54, or 3.3 percent, to $47.98 after saying it would spin off a part of its business into another company, Olin Corp. Olin's shares jumped $5.26, or 19 percent, to $32.48 on the news.

CURRENCIES: The euro rose 0.2 percent to $1.0904. The dollar was flat against the Japanese currency to 119.16 yen.

BONDS: U.S. Government bond prices rose. The yield on the 10-year Treasury fell to 1.96 percent from 1.99 percent late Thursday.

METALS: Precious and industrial metals futures closed lower. Gold fell $5 to $1,299.80 an ounce, silver fell seven cents to $17.07 an ounce and copper fell four cents to $2.77 an ounce.

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