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Stocks end flat as market shrugs off Fed policy comments

Stocks finished largely unchanged in lackluster trading Wednesday as investors largely shrugged off the minutes from the Federal Reserve's latest meeting that showed policymakers wanted further evidence of a sustainable jobs recovery before scaling back its bond purchases.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average finished 8 points lower at 15,291.66 , snapping a four-day win streak. American Express and Bank of America led the Dow laggards.

The S&P 500 and the Nasdaq closed narrowly higher. The CBOE Volatility Index (VIX), widely considered the best gauge of fear in the market, traded near 14.

Among key S&P sectors, health care held modest gains, while financials dragged.

The meeting minutes from the Fed's latest policy meeting showed that even as consensus built within the central bank about the likely need to begin pulling back on economic stimulus measures soon, many policymakers wanted more reassurance the employment recovery was on solid ground before a policy retreat.

"Several members judged that a reduction in asset purchases would likely soon be warranted," the minutes said. But they added that "many members indicated that further improvement in the outlook for the labor market would be required before it would be appropriate to slow the pace of asset purchases."

Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke was scheduled to speak shortly after the market closed from the National Bureau of Economic Research conference.

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"There's no reason to think Bernanke is going to be showing his hand right now," said Brian Edmonds, head of interest rates at Cantor Fitzgerald.

On the economic front, wholesale inventories declined 0.5 percent in May, falling by the most in over a year and a half, according to the Commerce Department. Economists in a Reuters survey forecast inventories to rise 0.3 percent versus an increase of 0.2 percent in April. However, sales were stronger than expected, rising 1.6 percent.

And weekly mortgage applications dropped last week as the surge in interest rates pushed borrowing costs to their highest level in two years, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association.

"The housing market's improving, consumer balance sheets are being repaired and corporate balance sheets are strong," noted Goldman. "But there are still negative overhangs—Europe's still not fixed, there's been bad news from China and there are geopolitical risks everywhere. We think while the market's had a nice run, we'll see increased volatility for the rest of the year."

Treasury prices held their losses after the government auctioned $21 billion in 10-year notes at a high yield of 2.670 percent. The bid-to-cover, an indicator of demand, was 2.57, versus the recent average of 2.84.

Meanwhile in China, the Shanghai Composite rallied after dismal exports data for June piqued hopes that the People's Bank of China could ease monetary policy in order to boost growth.

"My base line is that there is no export growth in China this year, at least until we see a pick from the G-3 economies begin to materialize," said Tim Condon, head of research for Asia with ING Financial Markets.

In Europe, the euro recovered after tumbling to a three-month low against the dollar following Italy's downgrade by credit ratings agency S&P on Tuesday. Italy's government debt is now rated two notches above "junk" status, at BBB.