Stocks were little changed on Tuesday, though comments from Federal Reserve officials suggesting the possibility of more stimulative policies sparked gains that briefly put the Nasdaq in mildly positive territory.
Some Fed officials are ready to provide more monetary policy easing if the recovery is deemed too sluggish to cut the U.S. unemployment rate, though others said the Fed should tighten sooner than expected if recent increases in inflation don't moderate. The comments were included in the minutes of the Federal Open Market Committee's June 21-22 meeting, which were released Tuesday afternoon.
The Fed's second round of quantitative easing, which ended in June, contributed to sharp equity gains. Some analysts have questioned the market's prospects in a tighter environment.
People were expecting a flat-out, 'No this is it. This is the end of the line,' and the fact that the door is still a little bit open provides a little bit of hope, said Peter Jankovskis, co-chief investment officer of OakBrook Investments LLC in Lisle, Illinois.
The Dow Jones industrial average <.DJI> was up 8.74 points, or 0.07 percent, at 12,514.50. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index <.SPX> was up 1.38 points, or 0.10 percent, at 1,320.87. The Nasdaq Composite Index <.IXIC> was down 7.22 points, or 0.26 percent, at 2,795.40.
The Fed minutes' impact was short-lived as uncertainty surrounding the euro-zone debt crisis kept investors away from beaten-down shares after days of selling. On Monday, stocks posted their worst day in a month.
European officials, for the first time, refused to rule out default by Greece. Investors feared the crisis could overtake the bigger European economies of Spain and Italy.
Helping support markets, traders cited rumors that the ECB was buying peripheral bonds for the first time in three months, with Portugal the suspected target.
Defensive sectors like utilities <.GSPU> and health care <.GSPA> kept the Dow and the S&P 500 in positive territory while tech names and the Nasdaq lagged.
The Nasdaq underperformed the other two major U.S. stock indexes as chipmakers' shares fell sharply after Novellus Systems Inc
(Reporting by Ryan Vlastelica; Additional reporting by Chuck Mikolajczak; Editing by Jan Paschal)