(Corrects paragraph 17 to read February factory orders)
NEW YORK - U.S. stocks kept close to the break-even point on Wednesday after weak reports on the labor market and regional manufacturing were offset by strength in the energy sector.
A legal ruling in U.S. oil giant Chevron's
The broader market also got support from Honeywell International Inc
But Wall Street's main focus was on the economy, with sentiment dented by the Chicago Purchasing Managers Index, which showed business activity in the U.S. Midwest slipped to 58.8 in March -- falling short of economists' consensus forecast.
Earlier, the ADP jobs report showed U.S. private employers shed 23,000 jobs this month, missing expectations for a gain of 40,000 jobs.
Investors were looking to the ADP report for insight into the coming March non-farm payroll number, which will be released on Good Friday, when the U.S. stock market will be closed.
The ADP number was a disappointment, but some investors are thinking that it may not directly reflect what could happen on Friday, said Terry Morris, senior equity manager at National Penn Investors Trust in Reading, Pennsylvania.
Morris said that because Friday's report would include the impact of Census hiring, it may not be worse than expected like the ADP report. That could be one of the reasons we're not selling off more on the news.
The Dow Jones industrial average <.DJI> was down 14.36 points, or 0.13 percent, at 10,893.06. But the Standard & Poor's 500 Index <.SPX> was down just 0.07 of a point, or 0.01 percent, at 1,173.20. And the Nasdaq Composite Index <.IXIC> was up only 0.87 of a point, or 0.04 percent, at 2,411.56.
The S&P 500 is up 73.5 percent from the March 2009 bottom and is on track for a fourth straight quarterly gain.
Wednesday's closing bell will mark the end of the first quarter. With just an afternoon of trading to go, the first- quarter gains for the major indexes so far stand at Dow, up 4.5 percent; S&P 500, up 5.2 percent, and Nasdaq, up 6.3 percent.
The S&P Energy Index <.GSPE> shot up 0.6 percent and was the top percentage gainer among S&P sectors.
Higher oil prices also supported energy stocks, with May crude oil futures up 1.26 percent, or $1.04, at $83.41 per barrel.
The top drag on the Dow was Boeing Co
Aircraft parts supplier Goodrich Corp
Also on Wednesday, a separate report by the U.S. Commerce Department showed U.S. factory orders increased 0.6 percent in February, slightly higher than forecast.
On the earnings front, SAIC Inc
(Reporting by Ryan Vlastelica; Editing by Jan Paschal)