Imminent action, it seems, wasn't so imminent after all.
The stock market recovered most of its Wednesday afternoon decline after the Federal Reserve hinted that it was close to taking more action to try to prop up the economy. But Thursday morning, those gains had all disappeared, after one top Fed official cautioned that more moves from the Fed were hardly a sure thing.
Around mid-day, all the major stock indexes were down.
Investors had gotten excited when the Fed on Wednesday released minutes from its July 31-Aug. 1 meeting. They appeared to signal that the central bank was close to stepping in more decisively to try to fuel the flagging U.S. economy, perhaps by buying government bonds as a way to drive investors into the stock market. That program is known as "quantitative easing," or QE, and the Fed has already tried it twice before.
Then, Thursday morning, St. Louis Fed president James Bullard put a damper on that excitement. In an interview on CNBC, he said that the meeting minutes, released after the customary three-week lag, were "stale," and that Fed officials were now considering new data that might make further Fed action seem unnecessary. Asked if a "major" program was needed, he replied, "I don't think so."
"He poured some water on the fire of the QE3 talk," said Ryan Detrick, senior technical strategist at Schaeffer's Investment Research in Cincinnati. "'Hold on, it's not as close as you thought.'"
Shortly after mid-day, the Dow Jones industrial average was down 71 points to 13,101. The Standard & Poor's 500 was down six to 1,408. The Nasdaq composite was down 15 to 3,058.
As it has been for most of August, trading volume was low. There was little other news to influence investors. The U.S. Labor Department reported that unemployment claims rose last week, but only slightly. Freddie Mac, the government-backed mortgage giant, reported that mortgage interest rates rose a fraction, but they're still near record lows.
The most decisive news was probably out of China, the world's second-largest economy and an engine that has powered world markets even as other countries have stumbled. China's manufacturing activity fell to a nine-month low, and the Bank of China reported a slowdown in its profit growth.
In U.S. stocks, Big Lots did worse than any other on the S&P 500. It fell more than 22 percent, losing $8.58 to $30.26 at midday, after reporting a sharp drop in its quarterly profit and slashing its forecast for the rest of the year.
Dow component Hewlett-Packard lost $1.32, or nearly 7 percent, to $17.89. The world's largest maker of printers and PCs reported weak quarterly results, took a huge charge to write down the value of a recent acquisition and offered a disappointing forecast.
For the most part, though, the market is in a holding pattern for the month, and the big events that could move it are still in the future. The Federal Reserve meets in Wyoming at the end of the month. Next month, German courts are supposed to decide it is constitutionally allowed to keep participating in the bailouts for Greece and other weak countries.
Investors, without a lot of news, have seemed unable to decide whether the economy is going up or down. In the 16 trading days of August so far, the Dow has been down nine and up seven, and the moves have usually been small, sometimes less than one-tenth of a percentage point.
Another sign of investor indecision: This month, the Dow and the S&P 500 have finished in opposite directions — one up for the day, and one down — 25 percent of the time. But over the past year, they've been out of sync on only about 8 percent of the time, according to Howard Silverblatt, senior index analyst for S&P Dow Jones Indices.