"Bernanke is coming around to where the rest of America is" when it comes to the U.S. economy, said Paul Nolte, director of investments at Hinsdale Associates. .
Shifting up and down in a 100-point range, the Dow Jones Industrial Average was more recently down 28.17 points to 12,626.29, with 17 of its 30 components trading lower.
Financials, which led a major equities rally on Tuesday, continued to show some strength among blue chips, with Citigroup Inc. up 1.1%, American Express Co. up 0.2%, and American International Group Inc. climbing 0.1%.
The S&P 500 fell 0.96 points to 1,369.22.
On the S&P, consumer discretionary stocks rose the most, up 1.3%, followed by utilities, ahead 1.2%, and energy, which climbed 1%.
S&P sector laggards included consumer staples, down 0.7%, and telecommunications and health care, both off 0.5%.
The Nasdaq Composite gained 1.6 points to 2,364.35.
Retail shares drew a lift from Best Buy's better-than-expected outlook and fourth-quarter results, with shares of the nation's largest electronics retailer up 1%. .
Shares of other retailers gained as well. .
Volume on the New York Stock Exchange topped 2.5billion, while nearly 1.2 billion shares were exchanged on the Nasdaq. Advancers led decliners on both exchanges, by 3 to 2 on the NYSE and 5 to 4 on the Nasdaq.
Beginning two days of testimony, Bernanke said he could not rule out a possible recession, although the Fed chief did not back off his view that the economy would pick up in the second half of the year. .
"The bottom line is the Fed has downgraded the near-term economic outlook since its latest round of projections," said Stephen Stanley, chief economist at RBS Greenwich Capital.
"The market's hesitations are also a reflection of what's going on with Bernanke's testimony. Those congressmen represent their constituents, people who have had trouble keeping their homes, and they're facing a man that has just rescued Bear Stearns; even if it was to save the financial system, it reeks of a Wall Street bail-out," said Art Hogan, chief market strategist at Jefferies & Co.
Ahead of the opening, stock index futures added to earlier gains after an ADP report found the private sector added 8,000 jobs in March, with the data coming two days before Friday's employment report. .
On the New York Mercantile Exchange, gold edged up after two sessions of sharp losses; gold for June delivery climbed $12.5 to $895.4 an ounce. .
Elsewhere on the NYME, crude-oil futures gained, with the contract for May delivery up $1.44 cents at $102.42 a barrel, following Tuesday's 60-cent drop to $100.98 a barrel. .
Overseas, European shares extended second-quarter gains as banks such as UBS AG advanced. .
By Kate Gibson