U.S. stocks were little changed on Wednesday as Wall Street shifted through economic reports for hints as to when the Federal Reserve would reduce stimulus, with investors on shaky ground two days before the release of the November jobs report.
"There are certainly increasing signs that the market is a bit tired," said Jim Dunigan, managing executive, investments, PNC Wealth Management.
After rising nearly 46 points early on and falling as much as 123 points, the Dow Jones Industrial Average eased its decline, finishing down 24.8 points, or 0.2 percent, at 15,889.7.
"Hopefully we'll get some agreement on a budget deal, which would take that worry away of a reenactment of what we saw in October. There seemed to be some thoughts of less headwinds from the sequester piece, though not as much as hoped, and some relief on the spending side," said Dunigan of reports of some progress in negotiations on Capitol Hill.
Dunigan also cited as supportive of equities a Bloomberg story that had Laurence Fink advising pension funds to invest more in stocks, with the BlackRock CEO saying equities are the only way for the funds to meet their obligations in a low-rate environment.
The lost 2.34 points, or 0.1 percent, to 1,792.81.
The Dow and S&P 500 both posted their first four-day losing streak since Sept. 25, and were also on pace to halt an eight-week winning streak.
Hewlett-Packard's shares rallied after the computer maker said it would cut 27,000 workers around the globe by the end of next year.
The Nasdaq rose nearly 1 point to 4,038.
Plug Power was among the components rallying after the fuel-cell maker said it anticipates turning a profit next year.
The CBOE Volatility Index (VIX), a gauge of investor uncertainty, rose to within reach of 15.
For every share rising, nearly two fell on the New York Stock Exchange, where 756 million shares traded. Composite volume surpassed 3.6 billion.
The U.S. dollar held steady against other currencies, while dollar-denominated commodities gained. Crude futures climbed to $97.20 a barrel and gold futures rose from a five-month low to $1,247.20 an ounce.
"We're hoping after the first of the year the market goes back to trading on fundamentals and earnings growth. In the short run, it still seems to be trading on interest rates," said Mike Serio, chief investment officer at Wells Fargo Private Bank.
Once the Fed starts cutting its $85 billion in monthly bond purchases, the market will "transition very quickly to wanting the economy to do better," said Mark Luschini, chief investment strategist at Janney Montgomery Scott.
used in figuring mortgage rates and other consumer loans, was recently up 5 basis points at 2.84 percent.
The 10-year Treasury yield touching 2.85 percent "triggered another wave of selling," said Peter Boockvar, chief market analyst at the Lindsey Group. "This is all about interest rates, mixed with a buy-on-the-dip mentality. We will go to 3 percent on a good payroll number," he added of the Labor Department data to be released in two days.
The market "wants a number that disappoints, because it will relieve the taper talk for at least another month," said Luschini at Janney Montgomery Scott.Equities moderated their decline some after the release of the Fed's Beige Book, which found expansion in the manufacturing and housing sectors, but hiring modestly up or little changed.
Ahead of Wall Street's open, stock-index futures had furthered their decline after the release of the Automatic Data Processing employment report, which found 215,000 jobs created during November, versus expectations for 173,000.
Labor Department data on Friday could have the unemployment rate declining to 7.2 percent.
"The number was really, really good, not just the 215,000, but manufacturing, which came out strong, and also the revision from last month," said Serio at Wells Fargo Private Bank.
The S&P 500 has risen 26 percent this year as the Fed has held off on cutting its monthly asset purchases.
Wednesday's economic reports also had the U.S. trade deficit narrowing to $40.6 billion in October, versus expectations for the gap to narrow to $40 billion.
Commerce Department data had new-home sales down 6.6 percent in September and up 25.4 in October. A separate report had the Institute for Supply Management's non-manufacturing index edging lower to 53.9 in November from 55.4 the month before.
The Federal Open Market Committee meets Dec. 17-18, with many analysts still expecting the central bank to hold off until its March meeting to start reducing their asset purchases.
—By CNBC's Kate Gibson
Coming Up This Week:
Wednesday: Earnings after the close are expected to include Avago Tech, Synopsys, Aeropostale, Guess and Mattress Firm.
Thursday: weekly jobless claims at 8:30 a.m. Eastern; GDP revision for the third quarter at 8:30 a.m. Eastern; factory orders for October at 10 a.m. Eastern. Earnings expected before the open include Canadian Imperial Bank; Dollar General; Royal Bank of Canada, Toronto-Dominion and Toro. Earnings expected after the market close include Cooper Cos., Ulta Salon, Esterline Tech, Finisar, Veeva Systems and Zumiez.
Friday: Nonfarm payrolls report for November at 8:30 a.m. Eastern; unemployment rate for November at 8:30 a.m. Eastern; personal income for October at 8:30 a.m. Eastern; consumer spending for october at 8:30 a.m. Eastern. Core PCE price index for October at 8:30 a.m. Eastern and University of Michigan/Reuters consumer sentiment index for December at 9:55 a.m. Eastern. Earnings ahead of the open are expected to include Bank of Nova Scotia, American Eagle Outfitters and Big Lots.
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