BUENOS AIRES, Dec 19 (Reuters) - Argentine stocks closed slightly higher on Wednesday in a session marked by low volume amid investor caution as credit market worries linger, while bonds ended mostly lower, traders said.
The MerVal index .MERV of the 25 leading stocks ended 0.2 percent higher at 2,130.12 points, after falling by as much as 0.48 percent at mid-session.
Broad market volume sank to 89 million pesos ($28 million) from Tuesday's 292 million pesos ($92 million). Of active issues, 27 advanced, 36 declined and 16 closed flat.
"This low volume shows that institutional investors are cautious in the short term. They're waiting for clear external signals to return to the market," said Leopoldo Olivari, a broker at Bacque brokerage.
Traders said banking shares continue to be hurt by concerns about a credit crunch that began in the U.S. subprime mortgage market, while energy companies have gotten a boost from crude oil prices.
Brazil's Petrobras APBR.BA gained 2.65 percent to close at 166.8 pesos a share in Buenos Aires, while on the downside BBVA Banco Frances (FRA.BA) fell 1.95 percent to 8.04 pesos.
Government bond prices closed mostly lower and were down 0.2 percent on average in a quiet session as investors eyed news on the health of the U.S. economy, traders said.
Among the bonds that lost ground, the Par bond denominated in dollars fell 0.9 percent <AR/BONOS>, while the Discount bond denominated in dollars bucked the trend, jumping 3 percent in selective buying.
The peso currency, which is regulated by the central bank, closed 0.16 percent stronger at 3.1300/3.1325 per dollar ARS=RASL in formal interbank trade.
In informal trade between foreign exchange houses, as measured by Reuters, the peso ended flat at 3.1575/3.1600 per dollar ARSB=. (Reporting by Walter Bianchi; Writing by Hilary Burke; Editing by Leslie Adler)