Stocks barely budged on Wednesday following reports that stoked unease about the health of the labor market and regional manufacturing, offsetting the energy sector's strength.

A legal ruling in U.S. oil giant Chevron's favor drove the Dow component's stock up 1 percent to $76.06, which helped limit the Dow's decline and prompted investors to buy some energy-related shares. A jump in oil's price above $83 a barrel also helped the sector.

The broader market also got support from Honeywell International Inc , up 1.2 percent at $45.50 a day after raising its first-quarter profit outlook.

But Wall Street's attention was fixed on the economy, with sentiment hurt 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.

The Dow Jones industrial average <.DJI> dipped 9.83 points, or 0.09 percent, to 10,897.59. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index <.SPX> rose 0.96 point, or 0.08 percent, to 1,174.23. The Nasdaq Composite Index <.IXIC> gained 4.20 points, or 0.17 percent, to 2,414.89.

Morris said that because Friday's payrolls report will 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 median projection from the 20 economists who have forecast payrolls most accurately over the past year predicts 200,000 jobs were created in March -- slightly above the 190,000 median forecast from a broader sample of 82 economists -- according to a Reuters poll.


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 two hours 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.

Those gains have spurred some investors to trim some of their stock bets, however. Investors pulled $926 million from domestic stock funds in the week ending March 24, the first drawdown since the week ended March 3, according to the Investment Company Institute.

On Nasdaq, shares of Research In Motion were up just 0.02 percent at $74.93 ahead of the BlackBerry smartphone maker's quarterly results after the bell.

Investors hope RIM will shed light on how it intends to fight competition from Apple Inc , which is reportedly developing a new iPhone to work on Verizon Communications Inc's mobile network.

The top drag on the Dow was Boeing Co , which said it would take an income tax charge of about $150 million in its first quarter because of recent healthcare legislation. Boeing fell 0.9 percent to $72.90; but it remains the Dow's best-performing stock so far this year, with a 34 percent gain.

(Additional reporting by Ryan Vlastelica; Editing by Jan Paschal)