Stocks managed to hold on to tiny gains on Wednesday afternoon as jitters about the economy kept investors from returning to the market in full force after three straight days of declines.

A labor-market report showing more private-sector job losses in August than forecast made investors more nervous ahead of Friday's highly anticipated monthly jobs data from the U.S. Labor Department.

The weak data also prompted stock investors to shift some of their money into assets deemed safe such as precious metals, sending gold futures up to their highest level in almost in almost three months.

We don't see any big rebound after the declines we've had because people are still wary ... waiting for more solid numbers from Friday's non-farm payrolls, said Chad Morganlander, portfolio manager at Stifel, Nicolaus & Co in Florham Park, New Jersey.

He added that investors are turning to gold as a hedge against financial malady, suggesting a high anxiety level on Wall Street.

The current mean estimate of economists polled by Reuters is for a loss of 225,000 jobs in Friday's non-farm payrolls report for August.

Financial shares once again led decliners. The KBW Bank Index <.BKX> lost 1.4 percent, with regional banks, such as SunTrust Banks down 6.9 percent at $20.24.

Regions Financials was down 5.6 percent at $5.23.

Moving up were shares of gold producers as the price of rallied to $978.60 an ounce. Shares of Gold Fields Ltd. gained nearly 10 percent to $13.03 and the NYSE Arca Gold Bugs Index <.HUI> rose 7.5 percent to 377.35.

The Dow Jones industrial average <.DJI> was up 2.72 points, or 0.03 percent, at 9,313.32. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index <.SPX> was up 0.21 of a point, or 0.02 percent, at 998.25. The Nasdaq Composite Index <.IXIC> was up 2.89 points, or 0.15 percent, at 1,971.78.

The S&P 500 has climbed about 50 percent from a 12-year closing low in early March, leading some investors to speculate that a correction may be on the way.

On the Nasdaq, Dell Inc was up 1.1 percent at $15.37.

Another bright spot in Wednesday's market was the health insurance group, with the Morgan Stanley Healthcare Payor index <.HMO> advancing 4.2 percent to 1,212.88. WellCare Health gained 2.1 percent to $23.68 while Aetna Inc climbed 3.7 percent to $28.89.

(Editing by Jan Paschal)