Stocks pared modest losses just before the close after rising slightly after President Barack Obama delivered his plan for reducing the budget deficit by $4 trillion over 12 years, and as the Federal Reserve confirmed economic growth remains moderate across-the-country.
Among Dow components, Caterpillar and Kraft rose, while Boeing and Bank of America declined.
The S&P 500 and tech-heavy Nasdaq gained. If the S&P 500 closes lower today, it will mark the index's worst five-day losing streak since last July. The CBOE Volatility Index, widely considered the best gauge of fear in the market, fell below 17.
Among key S&P 500 sectors, technology and utilities rose, while materials and financials slumped.
To reduce the deficit requires broad sacrifices, Obama said, adding that hewould not support renewal of the Bush-era tax cuts.
While the market took a more positive turn in the afternoon, trading was thin and largely directionless.
Asset managers who have to be invested are participating, "but they are waiting to see what happens," said Kenneth Polcari, managing director at ICAP Equities.
What investors need is real direction, either from earnings or a "macro" event, Polcari said.
Polcari is keeping an eye on the S&P 500, which at the time was trading right at its 50-day moving average of 1,311. Earlier in the session, S&P 500 futures traded below that level. If the index stays below 1,311, that could become a new upward level of resistance for the market, he said.
Stocks initially got a boost Wednesday from JPMorgan after the second-largest U.S. bank delivered strong results, including earnings of $1.28 per share. However, the bank's shares slipped throughout the session after analysts focused on some weakness in retail banking. (Watch: Inside JPMorgan's Earnings.)
Analyst Mike Mayo of Credit Agricole also said the bank's earnings show signs a credit contraction is underway.
But Jaime Peters, a banking analyst at Morningstar, said JPMorgan's results were strong in investment banking and asset management, and that weakness in the retail bank reflected an unexpected, and short-term, increase in mortgage servicing costs.
And Peters added, a contraction in consumer loans isn't surprising coming out of the so-called Great Recession.
"People are saving more," Peters said, also noting that a growing number of retiring baby boomers are less likely to spend as well.
"That means consumer loan growth will be hard to come by over the next several years," she says. "That will challenge banks to grow their revenue line."
Rivals Wells Fargo , PNC Financial and Citigroup were among banks leading the financial sector lower. Bank of America , which isscheduled to release earnings on Friday, also slipped.
And among techs, search-engine giant Google is slated to report earningsafter-the-bell Thursday.
On the tech front, Riverbed Technology jumped after the tech firm raised its quarterly outlook.
And Zoom Technologies shares soared after the company signed a license agreement with Qualcomm , allowing the Chinese mobile phone maker to develop and sell 3G products using Qualcomm's chip patents.
Earnings season kicked off with a lackluster start Monday after investors were disappointed with Alcoa's weaker-than-expected revenue numbers.
That may be because expectations for a strong earnings season were high, said Jeff Kleintop, chief market strategist at LPL Financial.
"I think what we’re seeing is a flat environment, and that might persist," Kleintop said, adding to expect to see volatility as well.
Kleintop said he is paying close attention during earnings season to what businesses have to say about the effects of rising commodity prices and geopolitical events on their future business outlook.