"Every time someone makes a speech, you get another move in the market," said Ben Fischer, founder and managing director of NFJ Investment Group in Dallas. "Everyone's just tracking it on a very short-term basis, and right now it doesn't look all that wonderful."
At 10:05 p.m. MST, the Dow Jones industrial average was down five points at 13,246. The Standard & Poor's 500 was up one point at 1,437. The Nasdaq composite index slipped three to 3,040.
Also at the forefront for many traders was the news that NYSE Euronext, the parent of the New York Stock Exchange, planned to sell itself to IntercontinentalExchange, an upstart and lesser-known exchange operator based in Atlanta.
NYSE Euronext's stock surged 34 percent, rising $8.06 to $32.11. IntercontinentalExchange fell 29 cents to $128.02. That signals traders think the proposed deal could be more beneficial to NYSE Euronext than to its potential buyer. The marriage still needs the approval of regulators, and it isn't clear if they'll offer it.
In Washington, the Republicans' "Plan B" would raise taxes on the wealthy, something the Democrats have pushed for. But the plan also left in place budget cuts to the military and domestic agencies that Democrats have generally opposed.
If the Republicans and Democrats don't work out a compromise before the end of the month, the U.S. could go over the "fiscal cliff," a reference to big tax increases and sweeping government spending cuts that would automatically kick in if no budget deal is in place. Some economists fear that would push the U.S. back into recession.
To be sure, many observers expect that a deal will be worked out ahead of the deadline perhaps at the last minute, and with lots of political theatrics, but worked out nonetheless.
Fischer cautioned that even a successful compromise wouldn't necessarily send the market soaring. The market already assumes that the fiscal cliff will be worked out, he said, evidenced by its more-or-less steady increase since mid-November.
"The market already anticipates a good outcome," Fischer said. "So even if you have a good outcome, I don't think the market will go up that much."
Even without the complications of the fiscal cliff, the U.S. economy has been difficult to read, a pattern that continued Thursday.
The government said the U.S. economy grew at an annual rate of 3.1 percent over the summer, higher than the previous estimate of 2.7 percent. But the growth is likely to slow in the current quarter and early next year.
The government also reported that the number of Americans applying for unemployment benefits rose last week, a disappointment after four straight weeks of declines. But the four-week moving average of jobless claims, a less volatile measurement, fell.
The yield on the 10-year Treasury note was unchanged at 1.80 percent.