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Stocks fluctuating as oil price steadies

A trader works on the floor of the

A trader works on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange on Wall Street on Monday, Dec. 15, 2014. Photo Credit: Bloomberg News / Jin Lee

Crude oil prices steadied Tuesday afternoon, giving a lift to energy stocks and pushing the U.S. stock market up, although indexes still were fluctuating between losses and gains.

At early afternoon on Wall Street, the Dow Jones industrial average was up 29.4 points, about 0.2 percent, at 17,210.2. The Standard & Poor's 500 index gained 1.9 points, about 0.1 percent, to 1,991.5, but the Nasdaq composite had lost nearly 17 points, about 0.4 percent, to 4,588.2.

Chevron jumped 3 percent, the biggest gain of the 30 big companies in the Dow Jones industrial average.

In other trading, the Russian ruble strengthened against the dollar after the country's central bank hiked its key interest rate in an effort to shore up the currency. The ruble, under pressure from falling oil prices and western sanctions over Moscow's conflict with Ukraine, had fallen as much as 20 percent before recovering.

OIL: Benchmark U.S. crude edged up 33 cents to $56.25 a barrel in New York. Oil has fallen by nearly half since June as demand wanes and supply surges. The recent drop to five-year lows puts more money in the pockets of American consumers, but it will also hurt energy companies.

CRUDE IMPACT: The volatility in financial markets is likely to last until oil prices find a floor, said Marc Zabicki, senior market strategist at Ameriprise Financial.

"Lower oil prices certainly are a net positive for U.S. consumer spending," he said. "But there's a contagion risk out there that investors have an eye on. Namely, what does it do to shale gas players, and what does it mean to the banks that lend to them?"

ROUGH PATCH: December, usually one of the market's best months, hasn't been living up to its reputation. Since reaching a record high on Dec. 5, the S&P 500 has fallen into a slump, losing ground on five of the past six trading days. Energy companies have been hit the hardest, a result of the ongoing slump in crude. The S&P 500 has lost 3 percent so far this month.

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