NEW YORK - Wall Street finished mixed in fickle trading Wednesday, with investors unsettled about the economy ahead of Friday's employment report and only somewhat relieved about sliding commodities prices.
The Commerce Department gave the market just modest comfort when it said orders for manufactured products rose by 1.3 percent in July. The figure was higher than the 0.8 percent predicted by economists polled by Thomson Financial/IFR; the department also upwardly revised its June reading to an increase of 2.1 percent.
However, many traders brushed off the report as old news, given that it is now September. With automakers releasing sluggish August sales and the Federal Reserve reporting weak economic activity throughout the nation, investors proceeded cautiously.
Anxiety about the Labor Department's August jobs report, due Friday, also prevented many investors from making any major commitments. It also had them largely shrugging off another drop in commodities, although a massive pullback in commodities since earlier in the summer has helped alleviate some of Wall Street's inflation worries.
Light, sweet crude futures ended the day down 36 cents at $109.35 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange.
One reason for the market's muted reaction to oil's decline is because investors are realizing that crude has fallen partly because global demand growth is waning — bad news not only for energy companies, but also for the technology and industrial sectors. On Tuesday, stocks gave up a huge early advance only to close lower, as investors' enthusiasm about oil's selloff gave way to concerns about the economy in the United States and abroad.
"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 orders data, falling oil prices, and the recent upward revision of second-quarter gross domestic product. "Despite all that, you didn't get a commensurate market performance. And that's troubling."
The Dow Jones industrial average rose 15.96, or 0.14 percent, to 11,532.88, after rising by as many as 37 points and falling by as many as 100.
Broader stock indicators slipped. The Standard & Poor's 500 index fell 2.60, or 0.20 percent, to 1,274.98, and the Nasdaq composite index fell 15.51, or 0.66 percent, to 2,333.73.
The Russell 2000 index of smaller companies rose 3.40, or 0.46 percent, to 741.91.
Advancing issues outnumbered decliners by about 8 to 7 on the New York Stock Exchange, where consolidated volume came to 4.94 billion shares, up from 4.67 billion shares on Tuesday.
Bond prices moved higher Wednesday. The yield on the benchmark 10-year Treasury note, which moves opposite its price, fell to 3.70 percent from 3.74 percent in late trading on Tuesday.
The dollar rose against the euro and pound, but weakened against the yen.
One bright spot in the market Wednesday was the troubled financial sector, which drew some bargain hunters thanks to positive news on a few big names: Ambac Financial Group Inc., Freddie Mac and Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc.
Ambac rose $1.58, or 22.4 percent, to $8.65 after Wisconsin insurance regulators late Tuesday approved the bond insurer's plans for a new insurance subsidiary.
Freddie Mac rose 20 cents, or 3.9 percent, to $5.38, after selling $4 billion in debt this week. The prices at which the company sold the debt indicated that investors' fears about the government-sponsored mortgage finance company, while still high, have eased a bit since last month.
And Lehman Brothers rose 81 cents, or 5 percent, to $16.94 amid ongoing speculation that the investment bank is in talks to sell a 25 percent stake in itself to a Korean bank.
But in general, the outlook for stock market is uncertain, and investors have been hesitant to make any large bets.
Investors were unimpressed with the Federal Reserve's latest snapshot of business conditions released Wednesday, in which businesses described the climate as "weak" or "soft" or "subdued."
The big economic headline of the week for Wall Street is likely to be the Labor Department's reading on August employment. The report is expected to show a drop in payrolls for the eighth straight month and another uptick in the unemployment rate.
The prospect of a worsening job market is worrisome to Wall Street, since many companies dependent on consumer demand have been hurting.
Corning Inc. fell $2.42, or 12.4 percent, to $17.08 after reducing its third-quarter sales and earnings-per-share outlook to reflect slower shipments of glass used in flat-screen televisions and computers.
European indexes fell after a European Union report showed falling exports and lower household spending caused the euro economy to shrink by 0.2 percent in the second quarter.
"We went from a weakening dollar, strong growth abroad regime to one that has a strengthening dollar and weak growth abroad," said Brian Gendreau, investment strategist for ING Investment Management. "People are trying to figure out what this means for their portfolios. ... No one really has a comprehensive way of sorting this all out."
Britain's FTSE 100 fell 2.15 percent, Germany's DAX index fell 0.78 percent, and France's CAC-40 lost 2.03 percent.
In Japan, the Nikkei stock index rose 0.64 percent.