By Noel Randewich
(Reuters) - Wall Street ended flat after a choppy session on Tuesday as falling oil prices led to more carnage in energy stocks and an "in line" economic report showed slower growth in China.
Declining U.S. crude pulled down materials stocks as well as the S&P energy sector (.SPNY), which slumped 2.17 percent.
Oil at 12-year lows is stoking fears on Wall Street of deeper losses for energy companies and the potential that some may fail to pay their debts. That has decimated oil stocks, helping push the S&P 500 down 8 percent since the start of the year.
China's growth in 2015 was the slowest in 25 years but in line with expectations, a report showed. That raised hopes that Beijing would cushion the slowdown with more stimulus policies, but was not enough to satisfy U.S. investors.
"You have a tremendous amount of fear and uncertainty in the markets and we'll need to see more than one good economic data point to overcome that,” said David Carter, chief investment officer at Lenox Wealth Advisors in New York.
At the end of a volatile session, a last-minute rally left the S&P 500 up 0.05 percent, barely above a 52-week low hit on Friday.
Heading into the close, traders noted a higher-than-normal level of "market on close" buy orders, which are designed to be priced at the day's closing price.
"That got some people thinking 'Maybe I should buy," said Michael Matousek, head trader at U.S. Global Investors in San Antonio. "You're going to have a lot of value players looking at the 52-week low and start nibbling."
The Dow Jones industrial average (.DJI) ended up 0.17 percent at 16,016.02 points.
The S&P 500 (.SPX) gained 1 point to end at 1,881.33. The Nasdaq Composite (.IXIC) fell 0.26 percent to 4,476.95.
After the bell, Netflix (NFLX.O) surged 8 percent after the streaming service's fourth-quarter subscriber additions topped expectations thanks to strong international growth.
Exxon Mobil (XOM.N) dropped 1.52 percent and was the largest drag on the S&P 500. Chevron (CVX.N) fell 2.58 percent.
With the fourth-quarter season shifting into gear, S&P 500 earnings on average are expected to fall 4.4 percent, according to Thomson Reuters data. Excluding energy companies, earnings are seen growing 1.5 percent.
Bank of America (BAC.N) fell 1.52 percent despite beating fourth-quarter profit expectations, after it expressed concerns about weak oil prices.
UnitedHealth (UNH.N) rose 3.02 percent, limiting losses on the Dow and S&P after the health insurer reported a 30 percent rise in quarterly revenue.
Tiffany (TIF.N) lost 5.07 percent after the upscale jeweler said holiday season sales fell 6 percent.
About 9.4 billion shares changed hands on U.S. exchanges, well above the 7.7 billion daily average for the past 20 trading days, according to Thomson Reuters data.
Declining issues outnumbered advancing ones on the NYSE by 2,087 to 1,023. On the Nasdaq, 1,893 issues fell and 990 rose.
The S&P 500 index showed one new 52-week high and 84 new lows, while the Nasdaq recorded six new highs and 402 new lows.
(Additional reporting by Abhiram Nandakumar in Bengaluru; Editing by Nick Zieminski)