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Stocks edge lower from near to record levels

Steve Rothwell, AP Business Writer

NEW YORK (AP) -- Stocks edged lower Wednesday, pulling back from close to record levels.

The Dow Jones industrial average fell 54 points, to 13,958 as of 11:26 a.m. EST. The Standard & Poor's 500 dropped 4 points to 1,518 and the Nasdaq composite rose 4 points to 3,190.

The Dow was pulled lower by McDonald's falling $1.49 to $93.92 and Caterpillar dropping 91 cents to $96.31. Twenty stocks in the 30-member index declined.

A government report also showed the spending by Americans barely moved up last month.

Still, investors felt optimistic about the media industry after General Electric agreed Tuesday to sell its stake in NBCUniversal to cable operator Comcast for $16.7 billion. The company said it would use up to $10 billion of money to buy back shares. GE's stock rose 80 cents to $23.38. Comcast advanced $2.43 to $41.38.

Stocks have surged this year, pushing the Dow to within less than a percentage point of its record close of 14,164.53 set in October 2007.

The index logged its best January in almost two decades, after lawmakers reached a last-minute deal to avoid the "fiscal cliff" of sweeping tax increases and spending cuts. Investors are also becoming more optimistic that the housing market is recovering and that hiring is picking up.

"We're cautiously optimistic on stocks," said Colleen Supran, principal at Bingham, Osborn & Scarborough. "There is some indication that we could be continuing on this slow growth trajectory."

The Dow is up 7 percent this year, the S&P 500 has gained 6.9 percent.

Strengthening the economy and creating jobs were key concerns for President Barack Obama in his State of the Union address late Tuesday, the first since his re-election. Although the economy is healthier than it was four years ago, growth remains slow and unemployment high.

Obama announced that the U.S. will begin talks with the European Union on a trans-Atlantic trade agreement, as well as calling for increased spending to fix roads and bridges and the first increase in the minimum wage in six years. The president also challenged deeply divided lawmakers to find compromises to avoid massive, automatic spending cuts that are scheduled to take place March 1.

A government report showed that Americans spent slightly more last month at retail businesses and restaurants after higher taxes cut their paychecks. Retail sales growth slowed to 0.1 percent in January, from a 0.5 percent increase in December, the Commerce Department said Wednesday.

As stocks have advanced, bonds have slumped.

The yield on the 10-year Treasury note, which moves inversely to its price, rose 2 basis points to 2 percent. The yield on the note has risen almost 30 basis points since the start of the year.

Among other stocks making big moves:

— Groupon rose 28 cents to $5.57 after brokerage firm Sterne, Agee & Leach, raised its rating on the company to "Buy" from "Neutral," citing the long-term potential for the company's changing business model. The online deals company has lost almost three quarters of its value since going public in November 2011 at $20, as revenue growth has slowed.

— Cliffs Natural Resources fell $6.80, or 19 percent, to $29.79 after the mining company announced a hefty fourth-quarter loss that stemmed from $2 billion in impairment charges.

— Dean Foods, a milk producer, fell $1.63 to $16.75, after announcing a profit outlook that fell short of Wall Street expectations.