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August is infamous for being a big vacation month in the financial world, and this year appears to be no exception. Whether it's rising or falling, the market seems to be marked by a lack of participation, as volume has been muted for several sessions. Still, holding onto the big advance from recent weeks is certainly better than giving up ground, and the Dow Jones Industrials (INDEX: ^DJI  ) managed to eke out a small gain of three points on the day.

But several Dow stocks did their best to pull the average into negative territory. Alcoa (NYSE: AA  ) was the big loser on the day, falling almost 2% on a generally down day for materials stocks overall. The challenge of investing in materials stocks is that low earnings multiples can make the stocks look attractive unless you realize that cyclical companies often suffer earnings contractions during the down phases of the economic cycle. Analysts expect an earnings rebound to come next year for Alcoa, but as long as economic slowdowns persist, the stock could languish for quite a while.

Several technology stocks also gave up ground, with Hewlett-Packard (NYSE: HPQ  ) falling 1.3% and Cisco (Nasdaq: CSCO  ) down about 1%. For HP, a report that it would outsource more of its notebook production to Quanta Computer suggests that CEO Meg Whitman recognizes the commodity nature of hardware and is trying to focus more of the company's internal attention on higher-margin goods and services. Meanwhile, investors are anxiously awaiting Cisco's fiscal fourth-quarter results, which the company will release tomorrow. With modest rises in earnings and sales expected, the real focus for Cisco investors will likely be on future guidance, with a need for the company to prove it has what it takes to compete in the rough-and-tumble tech world.

Finally, Caterpillar (NYSE: CAT  ) dropped about 0.8%. Like Alcoa, Caterpillar depends on industrial activity for its sales, and slowdowns in Europe and Asia threaten its business. As Fool industrials analyst Brendan Byrnes observed late last week, a recent strike poses some challenges for the company, but it shouldn't be a fatal problem.

Don't worry, be happy
Not all stocks manage to rise on flat days, but even the losers can have some long-term promise. The Motley Fool's special report on the Dow points to some good stocks for buy-and-hold investors, with information on three Dow stocks with fast growth as well as dividend strength. The report is absolutely free, so get your copy today.

And if you want to know more about Caterpillar, don't wait: Get access to a special Motley Fool report analyzing the key opportunities and risks facing the company. This brand-new report breaks everything down for you in plain, easy-to-follow English.

Fool contributor Dan Caplinger doesn't own shares of the companies mentioned. You can follow him on Twitter, @DanCaplinger. The Motley Fool owns shares of Cisco Systems. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Fool has a disclosure policy.

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DOW 18,145.71 -16.64 -0.09%
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NASD 5,257.40 15.57 0.30%

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Related Tickers

10/21/2016 4:47 PM
^DJI $18145.71 Down -16.64 -0.09%
AA $26.88 Up +0.19 +0.71%
Alcoa CAPS Rating: ***
CAT $86.33 Down -0.30 -0.35%
Caterpillar CAPS Rating: ***
CSCO $30.15 Down -0.01 -0.03%
Cisco Systems CAPS Rating: ****
HPQ $13.80 Down -0.30 -2.13%
HP CAPS Rating: ***