U.S. stocks edged closer to an uneven finish Wednesday as a dearth of major domestic economic news and concerns over the Chinese economy and tensions in Ukraine weighed on investors. The combination dampened trading and left the market listless.
KEEPING SCORE: The Standard & Poor's 500 index fell four points, or 0.2 percent, to 1,863 as of 3:35 p.m. Eastern time. The Dow Jones industrial average shed 49 points, or 0.3 percent, to 16,301. The Nasdaq composite gained four points, or 0.1 percent, to 4,312.
CHINA IN THE SPOTLIGHT: The catalyst for the latest weakness in the market was news this week that Chinese exports slumped in February. Since China is a big consumer of raw materials and energy, commodities such as copper and iron ore have dropped sharply. Copper has fallen to its lowest level since 2010.
"We've been seeing these periodic, occasional weak data points come out of China," said Randy Frederick, managing director of trading and derivatives at the Schwab Center for Financial Research. "And each time that happens when our markets are at ... record highs, they're going to be very sensitive to any sort of negative news and there'll be days of profit-taking."
SECTOR VIEW: Eight of the 10 industry sectors in the S&P 500 index fell, with utilities and information technology bucking the trend. Among the S&P 500 index's big decliners were insurer Progressive, which shed 92 cents, or 3.8 percent, to $23.60, and ADT, which fell 98 cents, or 3.3 percent, to $28.75.
UNHAPPY HOMES: Most of the publicly traded homebuilding companies were trading lower after Credit Suisse issued a broad downgrade on the sector. In addition, new data from the Mortgage Bankers Association showed home loan applications fell 2.1 percent from a week earlier. Meritage Homes posted the biggest drop among the decliners, shedding 89 cents, or 2 percent, to $44.16.
CRASH DIET: Herbalife fell $5.25, or 8.1 percent, to $60.14 after the nutrition and supplement maker disclosed that it is facing an inquiry from the Federal Trade Commission. The company made the announcement a day after hedge fund manager William Ackman renewed his attacks on the company. Ackman repeatedly has bet against the company and says he believes it operates as a pyramid scheme.
TECH HEAVYWEIGHTS: Google, Microsoft and Facebook, which together make up about 12 percent of the Nasdaq composite, helped lift the tech-heavy index into the green. Google rose $3.33, or 0.3 percent, to $1,203; Microsoft added 23 cents, or 0.6 percent, to $38.24 and, Facebook climbed 50 cents, or 0.7 percent, to $70.59.
DIGGING DEEP: Investors took a shine to mining companies on Wednesday. Cliffs Natural Resources gained 43 cents, or 2.4 percent, to $18.41. Newmont Mining added 73 cents, or 2.9 percent, to $25.07.
PRETTY SLICK: The price of oil dipped Wednesday as the possibility of a deeper economic slowdown in China led traders to expect global demand for energy to soften. That didn't stop some oil refiners from rising. Marathon Petroleum climbed $3.10, or 3.4 percent, to $94.39. Valero Energy added $1.54, or 2.9 percent to $55.22.
STAKE OUT: Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway has agreed to acquire a Miami-based TV station from Graham Holdings in exchange for sharply reducing its stake in the company that once owned The Washington Post. Shares in Graham Holdings rose $16.24, or 2.3 percent, to $725.40.
DRUG CONCERNS: Geron plunged $2.72, or 61.7 percent, to $1.69. Concerns about potential liver damage prompted U.S. federal regulators to order research suspended on its blood disorder drug.
BOND WATCH: The yield on the 10-year Treasury note fell to 2.72 percent from 2.77 percent. The yield, which affects rates on mortgages and other consumer loans, has been mostly rising this month from a low of 2.60 percent on March 3.