Stocks finished mixed in fickle trading Wednesday, with continuing concern about the economy offsetting relief about sliding commodity prices.
As automakers released sluggish August sales data and the Federal Reserve reported weak economic activity throughout the country, investors also felt anxiety about the Labor Department's August jobs report, due Friday.
Those worries trumped another broad decline in commodities, including oil, which ended the day down 36 cents at $109.35 a barrel.
On Tuesday, stocks gave up a huge early advance and closed lower as enthusiasm about a $5.75-a-barrel drop in oil gave way to economic fears.
Although a steady pullback in oil and other commodities since July has helped alleviate Wall Street's inflation worries, investors are increasingly concluding that prices are falling partly because global demand is slowing. That spells bad news not only for energy and raw-material producers but also for the technology and industrial sectors.
"All the data in the last two weeks has actually been very good," said Joseph V. Battipaglia, chief investment officer at Ryan Beck & Co., pointing to Wednesday's factory order data, falling oil prices and a recent upward revision of second-quarter economic growth.
The Dow Jones industrial average rose 15.96 points Wednesday, or 0.1%, to 11,532.88.
Broader stock indicators slipped. The Standard & Poor's 500 index fell 2.60 points, or 0.2%, to 1,274.98, and the Nasdaq composite index dropped 15.51 points, or 0.7%, to 2,333.73.
The Russell 2,000 index of smaller companies rose 3.40 points, or 0.5%, to 741.91.
Advancing issues narrowly outnumbered decliners on the New York Stock Exchange.
Yields on government bonds fell. The benchmark 10-year Treasury note dropped to 3.7% from 3.73% late Tuesday. The dollar rose against the euro and pound but weakened against the yen.
The Commerce Department gave the market modest comfort when it said factory orders rose 1.3% in July, more than expected.
But that report was overshadowed by the Fed's latest snapshot of business conditions, described by the regional Fed banks as "weak," "soft" or "subdued."
Meanwhile, the Labor Department is expected to report Friday a drop in payrolls for the eighth straight month and another uptick in the unemployment rate.
One bright spot in Wednesday's session was the troubled financial sector.
Ambac Financial rose $1.58, or 22%, to $8.65 after Wisconsin regulators late Tuesday approved the bond insurer's plans for a new subsidiary.
Freddie Mac rose 20 cents, or 3.9%, to $5.38 after selling $4 billion in debt this week at prices that suggest fears about the mortgage finance company have eased a bit.
Lehman Bros. Holdings rose 81 cents, or 5%, to $16.94 amid speculation that the investment bank is in talks to sell a 25% stake in itself to a South Korean bank.
Stocks slumped in Europe after the European Union said its economy contracted in the second quarter. Key indexes fell 2.2% in Britain, 0.8% in Germany and 2% in France. In Japan, shares rose 0.6%.