NEW YORK -- It's the best start for stocks in 15 years.

In a mostly slow and steady climb, the Dow Jones industrial average rose 3.4 percent in January, and the S&P 500 gained 4.4 percent, the best performances for the indexes to open a year since 1997. The tech-heavy Nasdaq rose 8 percent, its best January since 2001.

Investors have been encouraged by modest improvement in the U.S. economy.

An unexpected drop in consumer confidence dragged stocks down Tuesday. Also, U.S. home prices fell for a third straight month in November in 19 of the 20 major cities tracked by the Standard & Poor's/Case-Shiller index.

--The Dow fell 20.81 points, or 0.2 percent, at 12,632.91.

--The S&P 500 declined 0.60 point to 1,312.41.

--The Nasdaq rose 1.90 points to close at 2,813.84.

Maker of plastic film to build new Upstate plant

LAURENS -- A Chinese company that makes plastic film often used to package food is building a plant in Laurens County. Uniscite Inc. said Tuesday it will invest $70 million and hire up to 100 workers. The company hopes to open the plant in 2014.

'Uplift' in U.S. replacing overseas growth at UPS

NEW YORK -- UPS said earnings at the world's largest package delivery firm are now being powered by an economic "uplift" in the U.S., while growth in the formerly hot international division has slowed.

UPS said Tuesday a stronger U.S. economy and a surge in online holiday sales led operating profit higher in the fourth quarter. UPS expects to see faster growth this year in the U.S. economy than in 2011.

Higher oil prices drive profits for ExxonMobil

NEW YORK -- Soaring oil prices helped ExxonMobil post a slightly higher fourth-quarter profit. But a slowdown in production and lower natural gas prices are worrying investors. Exxon's oil and gas production fell 9 percent for the quarter.

Oil drove results. The company sold crude for 27 percent more than a year earlier, boosting net income 1.6 percent to $9.4 billion. Revenue rose 16 percent to $121.6 billion.

Amazon's income down sharply as expenses rise

NEW YORK -- Amazon.com's fourth-quarter net income fell sharply, hurt by higher operating expenses even as revenue grew. The company also gave a disappointing forecast.

Amazon said Tuesday its profit fell 57 percent to $177 million for the quarter ended Dec. 31. Revenue grew 35 percent to $17.4 billion, below the $18.3 billion analysts projected.

Avon vice chair is fired amid company's probe

NEW YORK -- Avon Products has fired its vice chairman and former chief financial officer in the latest move related to its long-running investigation involving possible bribes overseas and its disclosures to Wall Street analysts.

The beauty products seller said Charles Cramb was let go in connection with its probe into possible violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. He was CFO until May 2011 and continued on as vice chair.

Eli Lilly's net falls 27% as key drug patent expires

INDIANAPOLIS -- Eli Lilly and Co.'s profit fell 27 percent to $858 million in the last quarter of 2011 as the drugmaker faced another patent expiration for a key product. Sales fell 2 percent to $6.05 billion.

Sales of the company's all-time best-seller, the antipsychotic Zyprexa, fell 44 percent in the fourth quarter after losing U.S. patent protection in October.