Stocks closed mostly lower on Thursday, ending a choppy trading session that had investors looking ahead to Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke's speech Friday, his first public remarks since the Fed lowered discount rates in mid-August.
"Volume was very light but without extreme volatility," said Scott Fullman, director of investment strategy, for IA Englander. "We stayed on the negative side for much of the session with people adjusting positions going into the weekend."
Fullman said, "the main attraction for the market tomorrow will be Bernanke, and then the focus will be on getting away for the long weekend."
The bright spot in the market was a variety of technology stocks, seen as being less exposed to debt problems, which enabled the Nasdaq Composite to chalk up a modest gain in the Thursday session.
Wal-Mart Stores led the Dow lower after Merrill Lynch cut its shares to "sell" from "neutral," saying its operating margins are likely to compress further.
Financial stocks were lower, with notable weakness for brokers such as Bear Stearns, Goldman Sachs, Merrill Lynch and Morgan Stanley, which fell after Lehman Brothers cut earnings estimates on the group, citing tough credit and mortgage markets.