NEW YORK -- The Standard & Poor's 500 index once again flirted with new all-time highs but was unable to close above its previous record close.
For a third straight day the benchmark index traded above its record close only to fall back in later trading to end below the milestone. By the closing bell the index was up just a fraction of a point.
The S&P 500 added just 0.04 point to close at 1,845.16, after earlier rising as high as 1,852.65. The benchmark index last closed at a record 1,848.38 on Jan. 15 and hit an intraday high of 1,858.71 on Feb. 24.
The Dow Jones industrial average also gave up early gains and closed up 18.75 points, or 0.1% to 16,198.41. The Nasdaq composite gained 4.48 points, or 0.1%, to 4,292.06.
After rebounding from losses early in the year, when investors were concerned about the outlook for growth in emerging markets and the U.S., the stock market now appears to be at a crossroads.
While investors seem comfortable attributing the recent weakness in economic reports to the unusually cold weather, they also appear reluctant to push stocks higher before they see more evidence of growth. "This is a market that has been trying to decipher how much of the negative news is weather-based, against concerns that we have moved into a soft patch," said Quincy Krosby, a market strategist at Prudential Financial.
While investors seem comfortable attributing the recent weakness in economic reports to the unusually cold weather, they also appear reluctant to push stocks higher before they see more evidence of growth.
"This is a market that has been trying to decipher how much of the negative news is weather-based, against concerns that we have moved into a soft patch," said Quincy Krosby, a market strategist at Prudential Financial.
HOUSING SURPRISE: New home sales up 9.6%
TARGET EARNINGS: Data breach takes toll
In economic news, new home sales jumped a bigger-than-expected 9.6% to a seasonally adjusted total of 486,000 despite poor weather which hurt foot traffic. Economists were expecting sales to dip 3.4%.
The report shows the housing market remains resilient despite bad weather and higher borrowing costs.
"The underlying demand and buying intentions have remained healthy, and we expect any drop-off in housing to be a pause and not a retrenchment," Michael Gapen, an economist at Barclays told clients in a report.
Investors are still bidding stock prices up on the hope that the recent economic soft-patch is simply weather-related and that business will pick up as the weather improves this spring.
Still, some market participants are leery and point to the S&P 500's inability to make a new high as a sign the market lacks a true direction at the moment.
Some Wall Street pros are predicting an imminent market correction.
"The prospect of a pullback seems to be growing," said Chris Weston, chief market strategist at IG in Melbourne, Australia.
"Given we are coming to the tail end of earnings season, the question is what will be the catalyst for which the bulls will cling to from here?"
Target's first earnings report since revealing a massive data breach was among the stories investors have been watching Wednesday.
As expected Target's quarterly profits were hurt by the breach, with profits falling 46% from a year ago. Still the retailer topped earning per share estimates by a penny and met its revenue projections. The stock rose 7% to $60.49.
In Asia, Japan's Nikkei 225 echoed Wall Street's tepid Tuesday performance, falling 80.63 points, or 0.5%, to 14,970.97 while Hong Kong's Hang Seng index ended 120.24 points higher, or 0.5%, at 22.437.44.
European benchmarks lost ground, with Britain's FTSE 100 index down 0.5% to 6,799.15. France's CAC 40 index fell 0.4% to 4,396.91 and Germany's DAX index ended down 0.4% to 4,396.91.
Benchmark U.S. crude for April delivery was down 15 cents at $101.68 a barrel in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange.
On Tuesday, the S&P 500 fell 2.5 points, or 0.1% to close at 1,845.12. The Dow Jones industrial average dropped 27.5 points, or 0.2%, to 16,179.66. The Nasdaq composite index fell 5.4 points, or 0.1%, to 4,287.59.
Contributing: The Associated Press