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U.S. stocks closed mostly lower on Wednesday, with energy weighing, as oil prices fell sharply despite bullish inventories data.
"I think the market is trying to process the big question that we all have, and no, it's not the Fed," said Kim Forrest, senior equity analyst at Fort Pitt Capital. "The big question is: Is the economy getting better? We don't know."
The Dow Jones industrial average closed about 30 points lower, erasing earlier gains, with IBM contributing the most losses. At session highs, the Dow had risen 96.73 points. The S&P 500 fell less than 0.1 percent, as energy dropped more than 1 percent.
"Obviously, the market doesn't like uncertainty on any level," said Leslie Thompson, managing principal at Spectrum Management Group. "I think it's going to be hard for the market to move higher in the near term against this backdrop."
The Nasdaq outperformed, gaining approximately 0.3 percent as Apple and the iShares Nasdaq Biotechnology ETF (IBB) rose 3.6 percent and 1.2 percent, respectively. Apple posted its best day since July 27 and hit a nine-month high.
Stocks hit session highs after the Energy Information Administration said U.S. oil inventories fell by about 600,000 barrels last week, also sending oil into positive territory for a moment. Oil failed to hold those gains, as WTI settled 2.94 percent lower, at $43.58 per barrel.
Wednesday gains in stocks came a day after a broad-based sell-off in which equities, bonds, oil and gold all fell. "That's very typical of the beginning of a correction. As investors start realizing this is the real thing, you'll see more money flowing into traditional safe havens," said Chuck Self, CIO at iSectors. "Today could be a pause."
"You have a lot of confusion from investors," said Adam Sarhan, CEO at Sarhan Capital. "After a very quiet summer, you're seeing volatility expand in conjunction with uncertainty."
The CBOE Volatility Index (VIX), widely considered the best gauge of fear in the market, rose 17.74 percent to 17.85 on Tuesday, but traded 1.18 percent lower on Wednesday.
"Today's quiet economic calendar should help alleviate some of this latest bout of skittishness," said Jeremy Klein, chief market strategist at FBN Securities. "Portfolio managers will largely wait until the Fed announces its next rate decision before adjusting their exposure thereby giving short term market participants a clear playing field to operate in the interim. Prior to Janet Yellen's decision, I do not expect that the current pullback will spin out of control and transform itself into an official correction."
Data released Wednesday included import prices for August, which fell 0.2 percent. Economists polled by Reuters had forecast import prices slipping 0.1 percent in August. In the 12 months through August, import prices fell 2.2 percent, the smallest decrease since October 2014, after declining 3.7 percent in July.
Import prices have been constrained by a strong dollar and cheap oil. That, together with sluggish wage growth have left inflation persistently running below the Fed's 2 percent target.
The Federal Reserve entered a quiet period on Tuesday, a day after several of the central bank's officials delivered dovish remarks. The three major indexes fell sharply Tuesday, as concerns over the Fed's monetary policy meeting and a 3 percent drop in oil prices weighed.
The U.S. central bank is scheduled to meet next week and deliver its latest decision on monetary policy. Market expectations for a September rate hike were 15 percent on Wednesday, according to the CME Group's FedWatch tool.
Another element concerning investors is the U.S. presidential election. "The election is finally close enough to be a worry," said Randy Warren, CIO at Warren Financial. "[Donald] Trump is making things close and that's threatening the assumption within the market that Hillary [Clinton] will win."
According to data from RealClearPolitics, Clinton's lead over Trump has narrowed considerably since August. "Investors are very unconvinced about the direction of the market and are hesitating in placing their bets. This is reflected in the market today while there is also anxiety about Trump leading in the poll," said Naeem Aslam, chief market analyst at Think Markets.
In corporate news, German drug and crops chemicals firm Bayer agreed to buy Monsanto for $66 billion, or $128 per share. Monsanto's stock was up about 0.62 percent. "Some of these larger mergers are under a lot of scrutinee as to whether they go through," Spectrum's Thompson said.
Meanwhile, U.S. Treasurys rose after a large sell-off on Tuesday, with the two-year note yield near 0.75 percent and the 10-year note yield around 1.69 percent.
"If long rates have reached a major inflection point over the past month as I think they have, buying on any stock market dip becomes more fraught with risk I believe," said Peter Boockvar, chief market analyst at The Lindsey Group.
The U.S. dollar fell against a basket of currencies, with the euro near $1.125 and the yen around 102.3
The slipped 1.25 points, or 0.06 percent, to end at 2,125.77, with energy leading seven sectors lower and information technology as the only advancers.
The Nasdaq gained 18.52 points, or 0.36 percent, to close at 5,173.77.
Decliners were a step ahead of advancers at the New York Stock Exchange, with an exchange volume of 890.21 million and a composite volume of 3.562 billion at the close.
Gold futures for December delivery settled $2.40 higher at $1,326.10 per ounce.
—Reuters contributed to this report
On tap this week:
*Planner subject to change.
8:30 a.m. Initial claims
8:30 a.m. Retail sales
8:30 a.m. PPI
8:30 a.m. Empire State survey
8:30 a.m. Philadelphia Fed
8:30 a.m. Current account
9:15 a.m. Industrial production
10:00 a.m. Business inventories
8:30 a.m. CPI
10:00 a.m. Consumer sentiment
4:00 p.m. TIC data