Stocks closed slightly lower after struggling in a narrow range amid light trading Wednesday as oil prices ended mixed on the second anniversary since the S&P 500 hit its low point of the financial crisis.
The Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 1.29 points, or 0.01 percent, to close at 12,213.09 after bobbing in and out of positive territory throughout Wednesday's session. The blue-chip index finished sharply higherin the previous session.
Among Dow components, Caterpillar and Chevronsank, while IBM and Home Depot gained.
The S&P 500 fell 1.80 points, or 0.14 percent, to close at 1,320.02, while the tech-heavy Nasdaq fell 14.05 points, or 0.5 percent, to close at 2,751.72. The CBOE Volatility Index, widely considered the best gauge of fear in the market, rose above 20.
Among key S&P 500 sectors, materials and energy fell, while utilities and telecom rose.
"It's kind of an uneventful day," said Bernard McSherry, senior vice president at Cuttone. "The oil play is running out of steam. The feeling is that what is going on in Libya will be contained in Libya. I think some traders are taking solace in that."
The market is also getting some support from the European debt crisis, as money flows into the U.S. dollar and stocks, McSherry told CNBC.com.
Oil prices ended mixed on Wednesday, as U.S. light sweet crude fell slightly, below $105 a barrel, after the government said crude oil inventories rose more than expected by 2.5 million barrels. London Brent crude gained nearly 2 percent, to trade above $115 a barrel amid intensified fighting in Libya. Meanwhile, gold rose slightly to $1,429.30, falling from the previous day's record high.
Wednesday's trading may have been lackluster because the market has become so event driven, as there was no definitive event to set a direction.
"The market can’t make up its mind," J.J. Kinahan, chief derivatives strategist at TD Ameritrade told CNBC.com. "I think we’ll continue to bounce around in here for awhile until we have an definitive event."
While the market seemed to lack direction on Wednesday, the fact the VIX is trading in a new "comfort zone" of 19 or 20 instead of 15 or 16, where it had traded for months, is a sign of the market's unease, Randy Frederick, director of trading and derivatives at Charles Schwab, told CNBC.com.
"What (the VIX) is telling us now is there is a higher level of anxiety or uncertainty in the market now than there was," Frederick said. But, "that's not a bad thing for a market that's been going straight up for six months.