NEW YORK (AP) — On Wednesday morning, it seemed like a forthcoming statement from the Federal Reserve would be the big news for the stock market to watch.
Soon, traders' attention was diverted to unusually sharp moves in a number of stocks shortly after the opening bell. The New York Stock Exchange said it was reviewing trades in 140 stocks. Trading volume was unusually high in the first half-hour of trading, and some investors suspected technical glitches.
The market was in a holding pattern at midday as investors waited for clarity about what the Fed might or might not do. The Dow Jones industrial average and the Standard & Poor's 500 were up shortly after noon, but the gains were slight. The Nasdaq composite inched downward. The biggest percentage change was in the Dow, and it moved just 0.3 percent.
Disparate signs about the U.S. economy and company earnings also made it difficult for markets to choose a direction. For every hint that the economy was improving, another cropped up to indicate that it isn't. Construction was up; manufacturing, down. Car sales were strong — until wait, they weren't.
"We have a couple of positives," said Zahid Siddique, portfolio manager at Gamco in Rye, N.Y., "offset by a couple of negatives."
Investors are hoping that the Federal Reserve's afternoon statement will clear up some of the market's confusion. If the Fed indicates that it thinks the economy is weakening, that will likely send stocks up. That's because the Fed is more likely to pump more money into the financial system if it think the economy is faltering.
Another key development that could influence the markets comes Thursday, when the European Central Bank meets. Investors are anxious to know if European leaders have some concrete plan to tame the continent's debt crisis, or merely good intentions.
News on U.S. companies and the economy was mixed.
Chrysler, Volkswagen and Nissan reported strong sales in July, but General Motors and Ford faltered. Harley-Davidson sank 4 percent, losing $1.90 to $41.33, after missing sales expectations.
The cable company Comcast jumped 4 percent, rising $1.22 to $33.77, after beating analysts' second-quarter earnings forecasts. Avon lost 3 percent, slipping 44 cents to $15.05 after missing expectations for both earnings and sales, and JCPenney fell 6 percent, or $1.35, to $21.16.
The government reported that the U.S. construction spending rose for the third straight month. At the same time, the Institute for Supply Management trade group reported that manufacturing shrank for the second straight month.
Siddique was underwhelmed by the positive move in construction spending. He figures it's not enough to offset other problems in the economy. "It's nothing to write home about," Siddique said.
Shortly after noon, the Dow was up 36 points to 13,044. The S&P 500 was down three to 1,382. The Nasdaq composite slipped three to 2,936.
Another key development comes on Friday, when the U.S. government reports the number of jobs added in July. Payroll provider ADP reported its own calculations before the market opened Wednesday, estimating that U.S. businesses added 163,000 jobs in July, much more than the 120,000 analysts had been expecting.
That sent stock index futures up before the market opened. But many investors are waiting until the government reports its own calculations on Friday before drawing firm conclusions on jobs. The ADP data tracks only private-sector hiring, and can sometimes vary sharply from the government's report.