Wall Street was set to open near breakeven on Wednesday following volatile futures trading after surging U.S. producer price and weak housing data, while investors were buffeted by Middle East political uncertainty and a nuclear crisis in Japan.
Producer prices advanced in February at their fastest pace in about 1-1/2 years, boosted by high food and energy prices, while U.S. housing starts posted their biggest decline in 27 years.
Japan's nuclear crisis appeared to be spinning out of control after workers withdrew briefly from a stricken power plant because of surging radiation levels and a helicopter failed to drop water on the most troubled reactor.
Forces in Bahrain, a neighbor Saudi Arabia, launched a crackdown on protesters.
The political upheaval sent Brent crude rising 1.8 percent to nearly $111 a barrel, rebounding from a three-week low.
John Brady, senior vice president at MF Global in Chicago, said investors were caught between uncertainty over international events and what many see as strong longer-term fundamentals for U.S. corporations.
It's a back-and-forth trade, he said. If there is a (refocus) back on fundamentals, it's going to be a story of higher stock prices and higher bond yields.
S&P 500 futures fell 2 points but were below fair value, a formula that evaluates pricing by taking into account interest rates, dividends and time to expiration on the contract. Dow Jones industrial average futures were flat and Nasdaq 100 futures rose 1 point.
Japan's Nikkei average closed up 5.7 percent on Wednesday as hedge funds rushed to cover short positions after the worst two-day rout since the 1987 crash.
In a second day of losses tied to Japan, the S&P 500 fell to within 4 points of its 2010 close on Tuesday. The index dropped more than 2 percent in early trade before rebounding, and the Nasdaq briefly turned negative for the year.
Some investors have used the sell-off to buy stock in the belief the longer-term outlook for the U.S. economy remained strong, a factor that could limit losses.
We are looking at the sell-off in particular in energy and agriculture as an opportunity to add to our positions, said Pursche. We think that this a pretty good entry point.
Muammar Gaddafi's forces pushed toward the Libyan rebel stronghold of Benghazi and the government predicted victory within days, while world powers debated imposing a no-fly zone to help stop him.
(Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe.)