"We're trying to firm up, all the evidence points to an economic slowdown, but it's a soft landing and not a recession," said Al Goldman, chief market strategist at A.G. Edwards.
The Dow Jones Industrial Average shed 3.6 points to finish at 13,889.0, with 17 of its 30 components trading lower. American Express Co. led the Dow's decline, its stock off 2.4%.
The S&P 500 dropped 1.16 points to end at 1,540.08, while the Nasdaq Composite gained 6.64 points to 2,799.31.
On the New York Stock Exchange, volume hit 1.3 billion shares, and declining stocks ran just ahead of advancing issues. More than 2 billion shares traded hands on the Nasdaq, where decliners also barely edged out advancers.
In an echo of disappointments from other financial institutions this week including Citigroup Inc. , Bank of America reported a third-quarter decline in net profit of 32%.
Pfizer Inc. topped Wall Street expectations, even after reporting lower earnings, and the world's largest drug manufacturer said it would drop its inhalable insulin treatment. Pfizer shares were off 0.4%. .
Investors offered little reaction to a 0.3% rebound in U.S. leading indictors in September, with the Conference Board's measure of future economic growth looking largely as expected. .
And, stocks remained under water as the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia reported factory action in the region increased at a slightly slower pace in October, with the Philly Fed index dipping to 6.8 in October from 10.9 in September.
The Labor Department had reported an increase of 28,000 in the number of those seeking new jobless claims, bringing the count to 337,000 last week. .
"Though the data may have been impacted somewhat by the Columbus Day holiday, the numbers are nevertheless worse than expected and will play into the hands of bond bulls, who see significant economic weakness ahead," said analysts at Action Economics.
Treasury prices rallied, with the 10-year note rising 12/32 to 101 29/32, as the benchmark's yield fell to 4.507%, down from 4.551% late Wednesday. .
In currencies, the dollar weakened sank to new historic lows against the euro, with the dollar index down 0.7% to 77.595. .
In energy, crude-oil futures finished higher, with crude for November delivery up $2.07 at $89.47 a barrel. .
And in other commodities action, the December gold contract climbed $6.40 to close at $768.70 an ounce. .
In Europe, shares closed lower, pressured by weakness in the banking sector. .
Elsewhere overseas, Asian stocks ended mixed after a volatile session.
On Wednesday, Wall Street closed mixed after surging oil prices quashed an early rally, although the technology-laden Nasdaq Composite retained gains amid well-received earnings from Intel Corp. , among others.
By Kate Gibson