Stocks were little changed on Wednesday as better-than-expected data on the labor market and services sector failed to excite investors who remained focused on the prospects for a long, slow recovery.
Major indexes cut initial gains after the data as caution ahead of the key nonfarm payrolls report on Friday. The services sector grew slightly more than expected, while the private sector employers added more jobs than forecast in July. Still, the picture of the economy remained lackluster.
"The data was better than expected, and the market likes that, but 'blah' is the best way still to define this recovery," said Peter Boockvar, equity strategist at Miller Tabak & Co in New York.
Even so, the underlying direction remained positive, with advancers outpacing decliners by nearly 2-to-1 on the New York Stock Exchange.
The Dow Jones industrial average (.DJI) edged up 14.54 points, or 0.14 percent, at 10,650.92. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index (.SPX) added 1.95 points, or 0.17 percent, to 1,122.41. The Nasdaq Composite Index (.IXIC) gained 6.39 points, or 0.28 percent, to 2,289.91.
A handful of positive earnings reports helped the market tread water, including Priceline.com Inc (PCLN.O), which forecast solid bookings growth. The stock surged 23 percent to $283.16 as several brokers raised their price targets.
Worries about the slowing pace of the recovery have weighed on markets, tempering enthusiasm over corporate earnings. High unemployment remains a significant hurdle, and investors shied away from risky bets ahead of Friday's report, which is expected to show a loss of 65,000 jobs in July as census jobs evaporated.
"If you look at how the market behaved on Monday, we saw a substantial (risk taking). We're roughly flat at this point with Monday's close, which tells me people are going into Friday with a bit more of a neutral positioning," said Craig Peckham, equity trading strategist at Jefferies & Co in New York.
Microsoft Corp (MSFT.O) weighed to the downside, losing 1.8 percent to $25.68 after Global Equities Research downgraded the stock to "equal weight" from "overweight.