NEW YORK - Stocks ended little changed yesterday, having given back a brief afternoon gain that followed comments from Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke. The Fed chief said that unemployment and other problems would hold the economy to "moderate" improvements and that interest rates were likely to remain low.
Bernanke's remarks sent the dollar down because low rates make a currency less attractive. That gave stocks a boost because a cheaper dollar can add to profits for U.S. companies that do business overseas. The market's gains evaporated later, however, as the dollar pared its losses.
Dan Deming, a trader with Stutland Equities, said there were simply too few buyers on a day with little new news to keep the upward momentum going.
"It just feels like it's drifting," he said. "The market feels tired."
The fatigue comes as traders find few answers to questions about what investments will be strong in 2010 after the big run in stocks and commodities this year. Many traders have closed their books on the year and are wondering whether incremental improvements in the economy will be able to support more stock-market gains next year.
The Dow Jones industrial average rose 1.21, or less than 0.1 percent, to 10,390.11 after being up 54 points and down 29 points.
The broader Standard & Poor's 500 index fell 2.73, or 0.3 percent, to 1,103.25. It's up 22.1 percent for the year.
The Nasdaq composite index fell 4.74, or 0.2 percent, to 2,189.61.
The dollar fell against other major currencies as Bernanke spoke to the Economic Club of Washington, but pulled off its lows in the afternoon.
Low interest rates and the resulting slide in the dollar have helped fuel the stock market's advance since March. The weak dollar has encouraged investors to buy stocks, commodities, and other higher-yielding assets.
Tom Higgins, chief economist at Payden & Rygel Investment Management, said stocks would still climb when the Fed raised rates because the move would be such a strong sign of an improving economy that investors would be willing to take on more risk.
Higgins doesn't expect rates to go up soon, however, because the economy still needs supports to build a sustained recovery after a long period of excess debt and too little savings.
"We're starting to pay for those past deeds and the government is providing us with a little bit of aspirin to help," he said.
In other trading, the Russell 2000 index of smaller companies rose 0.77, or 0.1 percent, to 603.56.