U.S. stocks edged mostly lower Wednesday afternoon, flirting with the prospect of finishing in the red for a third day in a row. A dearth of U.S. economic news had investors focused on new data signaling slower growth in China and the ongoing tensions in Ukraine.
KEEPING SCORE: The Standard & Poor's 500 index fell four points, or 0.2 percent, to 1,863 as of 1:24 p.m. Eastern time. The Dow Jones industrial average shed 40 points, or 0.2 percent, to 16,310. The Nasdaq composite gained two points, or 0.05 percent, to 4,308.
CHINA IN SPOTLIGHT: The catalyst for the latest weakness in the market was news this week that Chinese exports slumped in February. Since China is a big consumer of raw materials and energy, commodities such as copper and iron ore have dropped sharply. Copper has fallen to its lowest level since 2010.
"We've been seeing these periodic, occasional weak data points come out of China," said Randy Frederick, managing director of trading and derivatives at the Schwab Center for Financial Research. "And each time that happens when our markets are at ... record highs, they're going to be very sensitive to any sort of negative news and there'll be days of profit-taking."
SECTOR VIEW: Eight of the 10 industry sectors in the S&P 500 index fell, with utilities and information technology bucking the trend. Among the S&P 500 index's big decliners were insurer Progressive, which shed 78 cents, or 3.2 percent, to $23.74, and ADT, which fell 81 cents, or 2.7 percent, to $28.92.
DIGGING DEEP: Investors took a shine to mining companies on Wednesday. Cliffs Natural Resources topped the list of gainers in the S&P 500 index, rising 69 cents, or 3.8 percent, to $18.67. Newmont Mining added 64 cents, or 2.6 percent, to $24.99.
PRETTY SLICK: The price of oil dipped Wednesday as the possibility of a deeper economic slowdown in China led traders to expect global demand for energy to soften. That didn't stop some oil refiners from rising. Marathon Petroleum rose $3, or 3.3 percent, to $94.29 and Valero Energy climbed $1.46, or 2.7 percent to $55.13.
STAKE OUT: Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway has agreed to acquire a Miami-based TV station from Graham Holdings in exchange for sharply reducing its stake in the company that once owned The Washington Post. Shares in Graham Holdings rose $23.30, or 3.3 percent, to $732.40.
DRUG CONCERNS: Geron plunged $2.69, or 61 percent, to $1.71. Concerns about potential liver damage prompted U.S. federal regulators to order research suspended on its blood disorder drug.
BOND WATCH: The yield on the 10-year Treasury note fell to 2.73 percent from 2.77 percent. The yield, which affects rates on mortgages and other consumer loans, has been mostly rising this month from a low of 2.60 percent on March 3.