The Dow Jones Industrials (DJINDICES:^DJI) overcame a coming confrontation on the fiscal cliff, to post a gain of 60 points today, focusing instead on positive economic news from the housing sector and its beneficial impact on financial stocks. Moreover, even as he scheduled a vote on his so-called Plan B fiscal cliff proposal, House Speaker John Boehner was seen as maintaining an open dialogue with the President in a way that suggests a compromise is still an option. The S&P 500 showed even better gains of more than half a percent.

But, as usually happens, a few bad performances kept the Dow's gains from being even larger. The big decliner of the day was Merck (NYSE:MRK), which plunged nearly 3.5%, after reporting that a drug that some saw having substantial promise failed a clinical trial, leading Merck to pull it from its pipeline rather than seeking FDA approval. Nevertheless, Merck has plenty of other prospects, including its odanacatib treatment for osteoporosis. Success there could more than make up for failure on the cholesterol front.

Caterpillar (NYSE:CAT) fell by a bit less than 1%, after saying that machine sales reported by its dealers in November rose by just 5%, a much slower pace than the 8% growth reported for the trailing three-month period ending in October. In particular, North American sales growth decelerated at an even greater rate, falling from 13% to just 3% growth. An improving global economy could get Caterpillar back on track; but, for now, investors are selling first and asking questions later.

Finally, several of the Dow's tech stocks inched lower, including Intel (NASDAQ:INTC) and Cisco Systems (NASDAQ:CSCO). Cisco reported that its buyout of cloud-networking company Meraki was completed today, marking Cisco's latest attempt to boost its presence in the cloud. Meanwhile, Intel suffered from an analyst cutting earnings estimates on the chipmaker, with the familiar refrain of slow PC sales driving sluggish revenue for the company. Longer-term, though, many technology stocks have been beaten down sharply in the recent past, opening the door to some impressive gains if the industry rebounds.

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