Scant buying lifted stocks for a second day Wednesday after the government reported a drop in companies' inventories.
The Dow Jones industrials rose only 3 points as the market remained in a lull that began on Monday. Many investors stayed on the sidelines amid an absence of news that could influence trading.
The Commerce Department said that wholesale inventories fell 0.2 percent in January after dropping 1 percent in December. Companies' sales rose 1.3 percent, the 10th straight gain. The drop in inventories and the rise in sales suggests that companies are working through inventory and will have to begin restocking.
The report was the latest bit of economic news to help nudge stocks higher. The numbers on the economy haven't been strong enough to galvanize traders because many improvements are already reflected in stock prices.
Stocks have been drifting higher this week in light trading volume. That signals that there isn't much conviction underpinning the market's climb. The Labor Department's report that employers cut fewer jobs than expected in February sent the Dow up 122 but its moves since then have been modest.
Reports on weekly jobless claims, retail sales and consumer sentiment will be released in the coming days and could give investors a better sense of where the economy stands.
Investors were cautious ahead of an inflation report in China. Traders speculated that the report, due Thursday, could show that prices are rising quickly as the economy there continues to grow at a fast pace. If prices jump, the Chinese central bank might boost raise interest rates. The concern is that higher rates in China would mean a slowdown in the global recovery.
The Dow and the Standard & Poor's 500 index have also been flirting with the 15-month highs set in January, making investors hesitant to place big bets.
Alan Valdes, vice president at Hilliard Lyons in New York, said traders aren't finding enough to power the market above its recent highs.
"It's more like a trading range right now," he said.
The Dow rose 2.95, or less than 0.1 percent, to 10,567.33. The S&P 500 index rose 5.16, or 0.5 percent, to 1,145.61.
The Nasdaq composite index rose 18.27, or 0.8 percent, to 2,358.95, an 18-month high. The index is still down by about half from its peak of 5,048.62, which was 10 years ago Wednesday as the tech stock boom crested.
Major indexes all rose modestly Tuesday, the one-year anniversary of the market hitting a 12-year bottom.
Bond prices dipped. The yield on the benchmark 10-year note, which moves opposite its price, rose to 3.72 percent from 3.71 percent late Tuesday.
Gold fell. Crude oil rose 60 cents to settle at $82.09 per barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange.
Some analysts see the week's subdued trading and light volume as the kind of ominous quiet that can leave investors unprepared for big moves in the market.
Christian Bendixen, director of technical research at Bay Crest Partners in New York, is watching the market from the sidelines because he doesn't have enough evidence to determine which way stocks are likely to head.
"The market just keeps grinding higher and it's amazing. We've hardly had a pause," he said. "We've chosen to sit out a few days and see what happens."
Two stocks rose for every one that fell on the New York Stock Exchange, where volume came to 812.9 million shares.
The Russell 2000 index of smaller companies rose 5.30, or 0.8 percent, to 674.93.