This Is the Reason the S&P 500 Struggled to Stay in the Green

You won't hear me say this often, but what I wouldn't do for some good old-fashioned economic data. For the third day in a row, investors focused on the looming fiscal cliff that threatens to raise taxes for everyone, and drastically reduce government spending on areas such as defense, unless both parties come to an agreement before Jan. 1.

Both Rep. House Speaker John Boehner and President Obama did their part today extending their parties' hand to meet somewhere in the middle and address this tax situation before the New Year. On that news, the broad-based S&P 500 (INDEX: ^GSPC) edged up slightly by 2.34 points (0.17%), to end at 1,379.85 after being up by double-digits by midday.

Earnings continued to be the main driver of stock movements within the index.

While it was hardly an eye-popping surge, International Game Technology's (NYS: IGT) 5% rise, following a robust fourth-quarter earnings report, marked the best performance within the S&P 500 today. The gambling equipment service provider saw revenue rise 17%, and handily trumped Wall Street's EPS estimates by $0.06, excluding one-time charges, proving that not all aspects of consumer spending are suffering.

Health-care products provider Covidien (NYS: COV) was another earnings beneficiary, with shares up 4%, after its fourth-quarter results snuck past analysts' expectations. Even though Covidien was hurt by foreign exchange translation, just like its peers, it still managed to boost revenue by 2.4%, to $11.85 billion and, more importantly, stuck with its previously-lowered guidance that it shared in August. Europe's woes likely won't allow Covidien to excel, but it appears that all pessimism has been baked into the company at the moment.

On the downside, we have J.C. Penney (NYS: JCP) , which should come as a surprise to no one, and Disney (NYS: DIS) , which seems to have amazed everyone but me.

The turnaround at J.C. Penney is soon going to be giving the Energizer bunny a run for his money, because it just keeps going and going without any tangible signs of a bottom. For the quarter, the retail chain reported a 26.6% plunge in revenue, to $2.93 billion, and a loss of $0.56 per share. The Street had been expecting a loss of just $0.15 per share on $3.27 billion - that's called not even being in the ballpark! I'm a firm believer in Ron Johnson but, if Penney's doesn't turn things around during the crucial holiday season, then I'm afraid most hope may be lost. Shares fell 5% today.

Disney, on the other hand, took the disasterdu jour award, falling 6% on the session, as it turned from a prince into a frog following its fourth-quarter earnings results. Disney's quarter was marked by robust income growth of 14%, because its theme parks and cruise ships performed well. However, Disney cautioned that viewers turning into political debates instead of its networking channels, including ESPN, will hurt advertising revenue in the first quarter. Personally, I've been concerned about Disney's valuation recently, and feel like the only investor not taken by surprise by today's drop.

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Fool contributor Sean Williams has no material interest in any companies mentioned in this article. You can follow him on CAPS under the screen name TMFUltraLong, track every pick he makes under the screen name TrackUltraLong, and check him out on Twitter, where he goes by the handle @TMFUltraLong.The Motley Fool owns shares of Disney. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Covidien and Disney. 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 Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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