Why Stocks Are Slightly Lower Today

Stocks are struggling to find a direction today amid a flurry of conflicting economic and sales reports. As of 2:40 p.m. EST, the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJINDICES: ^DJI  ) is down just 21 points, or 0.16%.

Earlier today, separate reports gave mixed signals on the domestic employment situation. On the one hand, payroll processor ADP estimated that the private sector added 215,000 jobs in the month of December, handily beating the consensus forecast of 150,000.

On the other hand, the Department of Labor released statistics showing that the number of Americans filing for unemployment benefits increased by 10,000 applications last week to a seasonally adjusted 372,000 -- worse than the 362,000 forecast by economists. Suffice it to say, we'll know more on the labor front tomorrow when the Department of Labor publishes its official unemployment statistics for December.

Data released this morning concerning retail and automobile sales last month painted a similarly dubious picture. In terms of retail sales, multiple companies reported a softer-than-expected holiday shopping season. To mention only two examples, sales at Target (NYSE: TGT  ) were flat compared with last year, and while same-store sales at discount retailer Kohl's (NYSE: KSS  ) beat analysts' expectations, they were nevertheless "lower than planned," according to CEO Kevin Mansell.

On the automotive front, alternatively, most U.S. car companies appeared to have hit on all cylinders last month. General Motors (NYSE: GM  ) reported that its car and light-truck sales increased 4.9% on a year-over-year basis, while Ford's (NYSE: F  ) jumped 1.6%, and sales at Chrysler -- a unit of Italy's Fiat -- shot up a staggering 10% compared with December of 2011. Shares of Ford and General Motors are higher on the heels of this news.

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