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December 20 2012, 02:10AM

US stocks have drifted mostly lower in early trade as investors eye Washington's budget impasse amid a looming deadline.

In the first 30 minutes of trade, the Dow Jones Industrial Average shed 9.82 points (0.07 per cent) at 13,341.14.

The broad-market S&P 500 lost 2.73 (0.19 per cent) to 1444.10, while the tech-rich Nasdaq Composite dipped 3.81 points (0.113 per cent) at 3050.93.

The markets were watching President Barack Obama and top Republican John Boehner in their effort to avert the so-called fiscal cliff of tax hikes and spending cuts set to take effect in January, but differences remain.

Experts say failure to reach a deal could drag the world's biggest economy back into recession.

On Tuesday, the Dow gained 0.87 per cent, the S&P 500 climbed 1.15 per cent, while the Nasdaq Composite was up 1.46 per cent.