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U.S. stocks mixed ahead of Fed policy news

U.S. stocks were mixed early Tuesday as solid reports on auto sales and factory activity failed to lift them above multi-year highs reached in the previous session.

The Dow fell 28 points to 13,236. The Standard & Poor's 500 fell 4 points to 1,415. The Nasdaq composite average rose 2 points to 3,121.

The S&P 500 closed Monday at 1,419, its highest close since May 19, 2008. The Dow closed at 13,264, its highest since the last day of 2007.

The gains came after a strong survey of manufacturing executives by the trade group Institute for Supply Management.

The government's final factory orders report failed to ignite the same enthusiasm. Orders to factories rebounded by a solid 1.3 percent in February as businesses made more long-term investments, the Commerce Department said.

The news bolstered earlier signals that U.S. consumers are feeling confident enough in the economy to buy big-ticket items like cars after years of putting off major purchases.

Chrysler said before the market opened that sales of its vehicles spiked by one-third last month, making March its best month in four years. Sales were helped by the introduction of small cars from the company's Fiat brand.

Ford chimed in later with a 5 percent sales increase, also helped by strong demand for its smaller models. General Motors reported a 12 percent sales gain.

Orders for durable goods had fallen steeply in January after a key tax credit expired. A preliminary report released last week showed that demand has rebounded and economists expect business investments will remain vibrant as companies that emerge from the trenches of the recession.

The indexes had opened lower on jitters about Europe's shaky finances and uncertainty about Federal Reserve policy.

The Fed will release minutes from the March 13 meeting of its Federal Open Market Committee at 2 p.m. Tuesday. The minutes will inform bond traders who have doubted the central bank's resolve in keeping interest rates near zero into 2014.

Concerns about Europe and speculation about the Fed also kept demand strong for ultra-safe Treasurys. The yield on the 10-year Treasury note fell to 2.17 percent from 2.19 percent late Monday.

In corporate news:

— Molson Coors Brewing Co. fell 3 percent after the company made a major investment overseas, putting up more than $3.5 billion to snap up StarBev and its nine breweries in central and eastern Europe.

The brewer saw its customers hit hard in the U.S. during the recession, but had a big fourth quarter to end the year. It announced the StarBev deal the day after the European Union said that unemployment has reached the highest point since the euro was introduced in 1999.

Molson Coors wants to expand into that market while things are slow and ride the rebound as Europe recovers. StarBev brewed 11 million barrels of beer last year, generating about $1 billion of revenue.

— Express Scripts Inc. gained another 2 percent the day after it completed its $29.1 billion acquisition of Medco Health Solutions, forming the largest pharmacy benefits manager in the country. The stock is up 4.4 percent this week.

Daniel Wagner can be reached at .