Dow gains 7 points after Obama's deficit speech. Stocks on the S&P up less than 1 point.
By Abby Schultz and JeeYeon Park, CNBC.com
Stocks ended flat to slightly higher after fluctuating throughout the session after President Barack Obama delivered his plan for reducing the budget deficit by $4 trillion over 12 years, and as the Federal Reserve confirmed economic growth remains moderate across-the-country.
The CBOE Volatility Index, widely considered the best gauge of fear in the market, fell below 17.
Among key S&P 500 sectors, technology and utilities rose, while financials and materials slumped.
To reduce the deficit requires broad sacrifices, Obama said, adding that he would not support renewal of the Bush-era tax cuts.
While the market took a more positive turn in the afternoon, trading was thin and largely directionless.
Asset managers who have to be invested are participating, "but they are waiting to see what happens," said Kenneth Polcari, managing director at ICAP Equities.
What investors need is real direction, either from earnings or a "macro" event, Polcari said.
Polcari is keeping an eye on S&P 500 futures, which ended the day at 1,309.80, below its 50-day moving average of 1,311.11. That's proof the 50-day moving average is acting as a new resistance level for the market, he said.
"The market will have to work hard to get through it," Polcari said. "Earnings and outlooks will have to be so spectacular to push the market forward."
Stocks initially got a boost Wednesday from JPMorgan after the second-largest U.S. bank delivered strong results, including earnings of $1.28 per share. However, the bank's shares slipped throughout the session after analysts focused on some weakness in retail banking. (Watch: Inside JPMorgan's Earnings.)
But Jaime Peters, a banking analyst at Morningstar, said JPMorgan's results were strong in investment banking and asset management, and that weakness in the retail bank reflected an unexpected, and short-term, increase in mortgage servicing costs.
And Peters added, a contraction in consumer loans isn't surprising coming out of the so-called Great Recession.
"People are saving more," Peters said, also noting that a growing number of retiring baby boomers are less likely to spend as well.
"That means consumer loan growth will be hard to come by over the next several years," she says. "That will challenge banks to grow their revenue line."
On the tech front, Riverbed Technology jumped after the tech firm raised its quarterly outlook.
And Zoom Technologies shares soared after the company signed a license agreement with Qualcomm allowing the Chinese mobile phone maker to develop and sell 3G products using Qualcomm's chip patents.
"I think what we’re seeing is a flat environment, and that might persist," Kleintop said, adding to expect to see volatility as well.
Kleintop said he is paying close attention during earnings season to what businesses have to say about the effects of rising commodity prices and geopolitical events on their future business outlook.
The effects of disrupted supply chains on future earnings per share for many companies remains uncertain as Japan struggles to return to normal after the devastating earthquake and tsunami last month.
"We’ve seen almost a month of these events having transpired, I think business will have enough color to provide guidance to investors," Kleintop said.
Toyota shares rose even after the Japanese automaker announced that it will stop production in five plants in Europe for several days in April and May due to a supply shortage in Japan. Meanwhile, Nissan said it would use three Japanese holidays in May to make up for lost production time to supply disruptions.
Commodities sank across-the-board on Tuesday after Goldman Sachs released a report calling for a correction in oil. But some traders viewed Goldman's call as simply a chance to take profits and get back in at a lower level.
Oil prices rose, reversing a two-day decline after the government reported that oil inventories gained 1.6 million barrels, while gasoline inventories tumbled 7 million barrels. London Brent crude gained above $121 a barrel, while U.S. light crude climbed above $106. Gold gained slightly to close at $1,454.90 an ounce, while the dollar slipped against a basket of major currencies.
And Schneider Electric is denying it is in takeover talks with Tyco International.
General Electric, meanwhile, traded flat after the conglomerate said a previous report that it planned to return money to the U.S. Treasury was a hoax. GE is a minority shareholder in NBC Universal, CNBC's parent.
And among other Dow components, Wal-Mart gained slightly after the big-box retailer said it is decreasing its electronics department in order to make room for formerly dropped items such as fishing poles, fabric and full-figure fashions.
Treasurys pared their earlier gains after the government auctioned $21 billion of 10-year notes, which had a high yield of 3.494 percent and bid-to-cover of 3.13.
In U.S. economic news, the Federal Reserve's Beige Book indicated that the economy continued to improve at a moderate pace across most sectors during the period from mid-February through March.
Retail sales rose 0.4 percent in March, according to the Commerce Department. The gain was the weakest since last June, when sales fell 0.3 percent. Economists surveyed by Reuters had forecasted sales to rise 0.5 percent in March. Excluding autos, retail sales rose 0.8 percent in March compared with a 1.1 percent gain in February.
U.S. business inventories, meanwhile, rose 0.5 percent in February compared to an upwardly revised 1 percent gain in January, the Commerce Department said. Economists surveyed by Reuters had expected inventories to rise by 0.8 percent.
Investors are waiting for a pivotal speech by President Obama in which the he will explain his vision for tacking the long term US deficit. The President is due speak at 1:30 pm ET. (The speech will be streamed live on CNBC.com).
The speech follows an agreement on the federal budget on Friday between the White House and Congress. But president Obama still wants Congress to raise the country's borrowing limit before a $14.3 trillion debt ceiling is reached as early as mid May.
The Federal Reserve releases its Beige Book of regional economic conditions at 2 p.m. ET.
European shares closed higher, lifted by banks and after strategists suggested there was further upside in the sector.