U.S. stocks ended flat in a volatile session on Thursday as energy stocks rebounded and investors bought beaten-down shares, especially small caps.
The S&P broke a three-day string of losses, recovering from a drop of as much as 1 percent, to close with the slimmest of gains. Earlier, it had briefly dipped below its 150-day moving average, a level it hasn't closed below since November 2012.
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In late trading, investors temporarily set aside worries about weak economic growth and rich valuations that have hit stocks of late and added to volatility. The CBOE Volatility Index <.VIX>, Wall Street's favored gauge of investor anxiety, closed at 16.16, down 3.3 percent, after earlier reaching 17.98, its highest since March.
Small-cap stocks also reversed direction. The Russell 2000 <.TOY> ended up 1 percent and is now down about 9.3 percent from its March record, exiting correction territory.
"We're going to have to wait a few days and see whether this can be a meaningful bottom relative to what we've seen so far," said Bruce McCain, chief investment strategist at Key Private Bank in Cleveland, Ohio.
The Dow Jones industrial average <.DJI> fell 3.66 points, or 0.02 percent, to 16,801.05, the S&P 500 <.SPX> gained 0.01 points to 1,946.17 and the Nasdaq Composite <.IXIC> added 8.11 points, or 0.18 percent, to 4,430.20.
The S&P's 0.01 point gain was its smallest since April 24, 2013.
Markets had been pressured early after a press conference by European Central Bank head Mario Draghi, whose discussion of additional stimulus for the euro zone disappointed some investors. European stocks finished with steep losses.
Energy stocks <.SPNY>, which had been down for much of the session, gained 0.4 percent. U.S. crude rebounded after falling below $90 for the first time since April last year, and Brent crude also finished well off the day's lows.
Friday's market direction will likely be determined by the September jobs report, expected to show 215,000 jobs added. The number of Americans filing new claims for unemployment benefits unexpectedly fell last week, pointing to a stronger labor market.
About 7.7 billion shares changed hands on U.S. exchanges, above the 6.1 billion average last month, according to data from BATS Global Markets.
The largest percentage gainer on the New York Stock Exchange was Wayfair <W.N>, up 30.1 percent, while the largest percentage decliner was Atento SA <ATTO.N>, down 13.6 percent.
Advancing issues outnumbered declining ones on the NYSE by 1,645 to 1,429, for a 1.15-to-1 ratio on the upside; on the Nasdaq, 1,730 issues rose and 959 fell for a 1.80-to-1 ratio favoring advancers.
The benchmark S&P 500 index posted three new 52-week highs and 25 new lows; the Nasdaq Composite recorded 21 new highs and 164 new lows.
(By Yasmeen Abutaleb; Editing by Nick Zieminski)