Stocks ended narrowly mixed after moving between small gains and losses for most of the session Wednesday as investors remained cautious ahead of a crucial ECB meeting later this week.
"Stories out of Europe in reference to the ECB keep coming out, but market players are probably tired of running on rumors and want to see the “real deal” before making commitments for more than a few hours," wrote Elliot Spar, senior vice president at Stifel Nicolaus, in his daily note.
The Dow Jones Industrial Average eked out a gain of 11.54 points, or 0.09 percent, to close at 13,047.48, led by Disney.
The S&P 500 erased 1.50 points, or 0.11 percent, to finish at 1,403.44. The Nasdaq slipped 5.79 points, or 0.19 percent, to end at 3,069.27.
The CBOE Volatility Index, widely considered the best gauge of fear in the market, ended below 18.
Among the key S&P sectors, materials gained, while utilities lagged.
Traders will be paying close attention to the ECB meeting on Thursday at which president Mario Draghi is expected to announce a bond-buying program to help countries such as Spain and Italy lower their borrowing costs. European stocks initially saw a small boost after a report that Draghi would propose unlimited bond buying at the meeting. But an ECB spokesman declined to comment on the report. (Read More: Fed Watching ECB Just as Closely as Markets Are)
“Everyone’s looking ahead to the ECB, but until the German high court's [decision on September] 12, the ECB’s going to be handcuffed,” said Kenny Polcari, managing director of ICAP Equities. “Tomorrow, the ECB might [come out with] a program that announces some bond buying but it’s not going to be the big bazooka that [Draghi] promised, so there’s a potential that the market’s going to be disappointed.”
Meanwhile, a survey showed that the euro zone is likely to have slipped back into recessionin the current quarter, with Germany's composite PMI indicating the lowest reading since June 2009.