"This is about as flat as it gets," said Rex Macey, chief investment officer of Wilmington Trust Investment Advisors. "It's a market looking for direction."
JOB GROWTH: A private survey on Wednesday showed that U.S. businesses added jobs at a steady but modest pace in January, a sign that hiring has rebounded after a disappointing figure in December. Payroll processor ADP said companies added 175,000 jobs last month. That's down from 227,000 in December, which was revised lower. But it was much better than the government's official figure of just 74,000 new jobs in December. The ADP numbers cover only private businesses and often diverge from the government's more comprehensive report due out Friday.
BIG DECLINERS: Freight transportation company C.H. Robinson Worldwide led the S&P 500's decliners, falling $4.90, or 8 percent to $53.73. Information technology company Cognizant Technology Solutions slid $4.09, or 4 percent, to $92.92. Cosmetics maker Estee Lauder was down $3.72, or 5.4 percent, to $65.46.
MONEY HANDLERS: Several financial services companies were posting gains. Genworth Financial was up 44 cents, or 3.0 percent, to $14.97 after reporting first-quarter earnings. The Hartford Financial Services Group gained 61 cents, or 1.9 percent, to $33.44.
IN THE GREEN: Global technology company PACCAR led the S&P 500's risers, climbing $1.70, or 3.1 percent, to $56.76. Retailer Nordstrom also rose, adding $1.65, or 2.9 percent, to $57.03.
SECTORS SWOON: Six of the 10 sectors in the S&P 500 were down in afternoon trading. Telecoms and energy registered the biggest declines on the day.
WAIT AND SEE: Despite the market's tepid rise on Tuesday, many investors remain leery, waiting to see if upcoming economic reports and company earnings will show that the U.S. economic recovery is on track.
A look at trading volumes illustrates the dynamic, notes Chris Gaffney, a senior market strategist at EverBank.
"On the down days, we're seeing larger volumes than on the up days," Gaffney said. "That leads me to believe that we're still in a down market here. And it's really going to take a surprise on the upside in this Friday's jobs numbers to maybe get us out of this funk."
DOWNWARD TREND: Markets started the week with a 326-point drop in the Dow, triggered by disappointing news about the U.S. manufacturing. By Wednesday afternoon, they mostly stayed in the red and on track to extend their losses. The Dow, which fell as much as 104 points, was headed toward a decline of 6.8 percent for this year. The S&P 500 was trending toward a decline of 5.2 percent.
TREASURIES: The yield on the 10-year Treasury note edged up to 2.67 percent from 2.63 percent on Tuesday. The yield, which affects rates on mortgages and other consumer loans, has dropped from 3 percent at the start of the year as investors have bought bonds amid concern that U.S. growth is slowing.