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Stocks finish higher in choppy trading, Nasdaq touches 14-year high

Stocks eked out small gains in volatile trading Wednesday, with the Nasdaq briefly hitting a 14-year high.

(Read more: Buying alpha: The easiest way to stock gains)

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S&P 500
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NASDAQ
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The Dow Jones Industrial Average rose 18.75 points to finish at 16,198.41. Wal-Mart climbed, while McDonald's slid.

The S&P 500 eked out a gain of 0.04 points to close at 1,845.16. And the Nasdaq edged up 4.48 points to end at 4,292.06. The index briefly touched a 14-year high.

The CBOE Volatility Index (VIX), widely considered the best gauge of fear in the market, traded above 14.

Meanwhile, the Russell 2000 index earlier hit a new high of 1,183.04, topping its previous all-time record of 1,182.04 reached in mid-January.

Among key S&P sectors, energy and telecoms dragged, while materials held modest gains.

Stocks were higher for most of the session, lifted by encouraging news on the housing front. New home sales spiked 9.6 percent in January, jumping to a 5-1/2 year high, to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 468,000 units, according to the Commerce Department. Economists polled by Reuters had forecast new home sales falling to a 400,000-unit pace.

Most housing stocks rallied sharply, led by Ryland, Beazer and Lennar.

Earlier, weekly mortgage applications fell to its lowest level in nearly two decades, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association, pointing to weakness in buyer demand heading into the usually-busy spring housing season.

(Read more: CEOs are bucking housing's bad numbers)

Meanwhile, Boston Federal Reserve Bank President Eric Rosengren said the recent drop in the unemployment rate overstates the health of the labor market and should not trigger any speedy reduction in the central bank's easy monetary policy.

Fed Chair Janet Yellen is scheduled to testify before the Senate Banking Committee on Thursday, in her second testimony before Congress this month.

During her testimony before the House Financial Committee, she underscored the Fed would continue on a course to taper back its $65 billion-a-month bond-buying program, unless there was a notable change in the economy. Traders expect another cut of $10 billion when central bankers meet in March.

Among earnings, Target jumped after the retailer edged past Wall Street expectations. The company said the December data breach shaved two cents a share off its earnings and impacted sales as well, though CEO Gregg Steinhafel said sales trends have improved in recent weeks. The stock is on pace for its largest gain since August 2009.

Lowe's jumped after the home improvement retailer reported strong revenue growth, closing its sales gap with rival Home Depot. On Tuesday, Home Depot posted a 3-percent decline in overall sales.

Baidu, Autodesk, L Brands and JCPenney are among companies slated to post earnings after the closing bell.

In addition, crude oil inventories for last week will be published at 10:30 am ET.

(Read more: Crude prices could do an about-face, and soon)

Meanwhile, the Federal Reserve's Eric Rosengren will speak in Boston on the economy at noon ET.

Treasury prices were little changed after the government auctioned $35 billion in 5-year notes at a high yield of 1.530 percent. The bid-to-cover ratio, an indicator of demand, was 2.98.

On Tuesday, major averages wavered between small gains and losses throughout the session, ultimately ending in the red after the S&P failed to break above Monday's record. The index is less than 1 percent below its all-time high.

(Read more: Beware the bear: Sectors, retail struggle in rally)

European shares slipped amid concern over China's economy.

"The market has priced in imminent financial crisis in China, with current valuations reflecting a big equity risk premium," Fan Cheuk Wan, CIO of Asia Pacific at Credit Suisse Private Banking, told CNBC.

—By CNBC's JeeYeon Park (Follow JeeYeon on Twitter: @ JeeYeonParkCNBC)

Coming up this week:

THURSDAY: Durable goods orders, jobless claims, natural gas inventories, Kansas City Fed mfg index, 7-year note auction, Fed's Lockhart speaks; Earnings from Best Buy, Kohl's, Wendy's, Decker's Outdoor, Gap, Monster Beverage, Ross Stores
FRIDAY: GDP, Chicago PMI, consumer sentiment, pending home sales, Fed's Stein speaks, Fed's Evans speaks

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