Hanging on by its claws as the market tilted downward this afternoon, the Standard & Poor's 500 stock index today claimed its eighth advance in the past nine days.

But the gain was so puny that even Wall Street's spin doctors were hard pressed not to admit that the stock market's November rally seems to be stalling out.

The S&P index closed .o2 higher at 1,257.48, but other measures of the market slipped for the second day in a row.

The Dow Jones industrial average touched a new high for the year in morning trading, but then retreated and closed down nearly 3 points at 10,888.16. The Nasdaq Stock Market composite index fell 7 points to 2,232.71.

After climbing steadily for the past month, stocks hits the wall on Monday. Or make that the Wal-Mart. The nation's biggest retailer set the agenda for the holiday gift-giving season by starting deep discounts immediately.

Intended to lure shoppers into the stores, Wal-Mart's bargains instead are making investors nervous because they could bring down profits for the whole retail industry.

Consumer confidence scored its biggest improvement in two years, based on the latest survey by the Conference Board, a private-industry group. Rather than relieving Wall Street's anxieties, however, that survey renewed worries about inflation.

Even today's surprising report on new home sales didn't thrill investors. Instead of falling as expected, new home sales jumped 13 percent -- their biggest month-to-month gain in a dozen years. Most homebuilding stocks fell after the report was issued. Housing experts say the November number simply showed people rushing to buy homes before interest rates go higher. That temporary bump will be followed by what always happens when mortgage rates rise significantly -- slower home sales.