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Markets hardly budge as earnings season intensifies

The markets turn in a tame performance as earnings season picks up and the government prepares to release key economic data tomorrow.

The markets turned in a tame performance as earnings season picked up and the government prepared to release key economic data tomorrow.

The Nasdaq composite index rose just 28.49 to 4,274.67, and the Standard & Poor's 500 edged up 0.51 to 1,510.49.

The Dow Jones industrial average fell 8.48 to close at 10,804.27, led by SBC Communications, which fell $2.06 to $43.31.

Activity was subdued at the start of a busy week for earnings announcements. At the end of this week more than half of the companies in the S&P 500 will have reported earnings.

The government will also release consumer price index data for the month of June tomorrow morning. The data measures inflation at the consumer level, which the Federal Reserve uses to set interest rate policy. Mild evidence of inflation would prompt the Fed to favor an increase in interest rates, while strong inflation would urge the Fed to raise rates, therefore increasing the cost of borrowing.

With so much at stake, traders largely elected to stay on the sidelines. Both the Dow and the Nasdaq posted light to moderate trading volume.

Todd Clark, head of listed trading at WR Hambrecht, saw some "posturing" as investors jockeyed for market position. "Some of the tech stocks have had pretty nice runs," said Clark, "so some investors may want to (sell and) take profits, and others might bet on some upside earnings news" and buy into a stock early.

Technology companies are doing well so far in the early stages of earnings season.

According to Tony Crooks, a research analyst at First Call/Thomson Financial, 19 percent of the tech companies in the S&P 500 have reported second-quarter earnings, and they are beating expectations by 18 percent.

Crooks added that the 18 percent figure will fall as more technology companies report in the next few weeks. But he believes that this quarter's tech sector earnings will exceed last year's by 35 percent.

At the end of regular trading, Intel closed down 38 cents at $146.31, and Microsoft dropped 75 cents to $78.19.

The CNET tech index gained 16.76 to close at 3,056.38. Winners edged out losers, with 54 of the 97 stocks in the index rising, 41 falling and two remaining unchanged.

Of the 18 sectors tracked, semiconductor equipment companies posted the sharpest gains, rising about 4 percent. Distributors of computer equipment were the day's largest decliners, sliding about 2 percent.

A negative earnings preannouncement made shares of Mercator Software lose the greatest amount in percentage terms on the Nasdaq today. Mercator fell $36.44, or 58 percent, to $26.19. Volume topped 16.4 million shares, about 41 times more than the stock's average daily volume.

The company, which makes applications that integrate an organization's software with other software programs, expects to post earnings of 4 cents a share, compared with the consensus estimate of 8 cents a share expected by 10 analysts surveyed by First Call/Thomson Financial. The company made 6 cents a share during the year-ago quarter.

Among members of the CNET tech index, Lycos and Qualcomm posted strong gains.

Lycos rose $8.19, or almost 17 percent, to $57.38. Terra Networks, which is in the middle of acquiring Lycos, said it acquired 65 percent of La Ciudad, a Colombian company that runs one of the country's biggest entertainment Web pages, as it steps up its efforts to become the biggest Internet company in Latin America.

Qualcomm rose $6.75, or nearly 11 percent, to $69.81. Qualcomm announced that authorities in Japan and Europe upheld three key patents on its mobile phone technology.

Shares of 3Com fell $6.81, or 9 percent, to $66.81 after the company was downgraded to "maintain position" from "buy" by analyst Peter Andrew at A.G. Edwards & Sons.

The Philadelphia semiconductor index rose 27.27, or 2 percent, to 1,266.39, led by chip equipment maker Novellus, which gained $4.19, or nearly 7 percent, to close at $68.44.

Shares of Novellus and Lattice Semiconductor may see active trading tomorrow, as both companies are expected to report earnings later today. Lattice closed up $2.94 at $78.56.