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Dow ends mildly lower; Nasdaq halts four-session losing streak

U.S. stocks were little changed on Wednesday, but the Nasdaq Composite derailed a four-session losing streak, as investors mulled the economic climate and tracked events in Ukraine.

"My recent research last week told me the market looked a little tired, the market was at record highs for the prior two days of last week, and the situation with Ukraine and Russia is still percolating," said Randy Frederick, director active trading and derivatives at the Schwab Center for Financial Research.

Therefore, "it doesn't surprise me that there's some profit taking and a bit of a pullback," said Frederick, who views the 1,848 level as support for the S&P 500.

Express fell after the apparel retailer posted fourth-quarter earnings and a current-quarter profit outlook that missed estimates. Shares of Herbalife declined as the Federal Trade Commission opened a formal probe into the seller of nutritional supplements. Pfizer dropped after saying a court had invalidated a key patent behind its blockbuster Celebrex drug, and that it plans to appeal the decision.

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Falling as much as 91 points, the Dow Jones Industrial Average declined 11.17 points, or 0.1 percent, to 16,340.08, with Pfizer leading blue-chip losses that included 14 of the Dow's 30 components.

The S&P 500 added half a point to 1,868.20, with utilities and technology faring best and industrials and telecommunications the weakest performers among its 10 major sectors.

After a four-session drop, the Nasdaq erased initial losses and closed 0.4 percent higher, up 16.14 points to 4,323.33.

For every seven shares falling, roughly eight rose on the New York Stock Exchange, where more than 657 million shares exchanged hands. Composite volume cleared 3.2 billion.

On the New York Mercantile Exchange, gold futures for April delivery rose $23.80, or 1.8 percent, to $1,370.50 an ounce; crude-oil futures declined $2.04, or 2 percent, to $97.99 a barrel.

As the price of oil fell, refinery stocks rose to 52-week highs.

The dollar fell against the currencies of major U.S. trading partners; the 10-year Treasury yield dropped 5 basis points to 2.723 percent.

The CBOE Volatility Index (VIX), a gauge of investor uncertainty, declined 2.4 percent to 14.44.

Ukraine Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk met with President Obama at the White House Wednesday as the administration looks for ways to head off the crisis in Ukraine, just days ahead of a scheduled referendum in Crimea to decide where it becomes a part of Russia.

In remarks prepared for his confirmation hearing Thursday before the Senate Banking Committee, Stanley Fischer, the nominee to be the Federal Reserve vice chairman, said the U.S. economy still requires central-bank accommodation even as the Fed tapers monthly asset purchases.

On Tuesday, stocks fell as copper slid to a near four-year low as recent economic reports from China suggest slowing growth, while the nation's first bond default last week had investors questioning the viability of deals using the industrial metal as collateral.

"Copper has also been in great demand by China... until recently. Clearly worries about a Chinese economic slowdown have exacerbated copper's price decline," emailed Jeffrey Saut, chief investment strategist at Raymond James.

(Read more: Markets watching to see why copper getting scorched)

"While copper is now a new found collateral for loans in China that may now be at risk of being liquidated, it is still a global growth proxy and it's trading lower to intraday levels last seen in June," noted Peter Boockvar, chief market analyst at the Lindsey Group.

Frederick, however, downplayed the concerns about China's economic growth, saying the country "can't maintain 12 percent, 13 percent GDP growth year after year. I think they are projecting 7.5 percent GDP going forward, which is not so bad compared to U.S. GDP," Frederick added.

—By CNBC's Kate Gibson

Coming Up This Week:

Thursday

Earnings: Dollar General, Sea World, Zumiez, Aeropostale, Ulta Salon

8:30 a.m.: Initial claims

8:30 a.m.: Retail sales

8:30 a.m.: Import prices

10:00 a.m.: Business inventories

10:00 a.m.: Senate Banking Fed nomination hearing

10:30 a.m.: EIA natural gas storage

1:00 p.m.: $13 billion 30-year Treasury auction

Friday

Earnings: Ann, the Buckle

8:30 a.m.: PPI

9:55 a.m.: Consumer sentiment

9:45 p.m.: Dallas Fed President Richard Fisher

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