NEW YORK Stocks edged higher on Wednesday in the lightest trading of the year as investors waited for a key speech by Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke on Friday.
Daily volume this week has been very low, even for a seasonally slow period, with the market recording three of the four lowest volume full sessions of 2012. The low volume reflected investors' reluctance to place big bets before Bernanke's speech.
What little excitement there was came from data showing pending home sales rose 2.4 percent in July, a bigger gain than expected, according to the National Association of Realtors. An index of housing shares .HGX was up 0.5 percent.
"We're seeing consistently good numbers out of the housing market. It's hard to get too negative on the U.S. economy with the housing market doing better than expected," said Paul Zemsky, chief investment officer of Multi-Asset Strategies at ING Investment Management in New York.
"I think the U.S. is doing pretty well today, given what the rest of the world has done," he said. The Shanghai Composite index .SSEC hit its lowest close since February 2009, while the S&P 500 is trading near a four-year high.
Bernanke addresses a conference of central bankers in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and could announce new measures to boost growth. He is expected to stoke expectations for a third round of quantitative easing, though he may not detail the timing of the Fed's action.
Volume traded on the New York Stock Exchange, the Nasdaq and the Amex, was 4.41 billion shares compared with the previous low on Monday of 4.46 billion. The year-to-date average is about 6.6 billion.
Shares of customer reviews website Yelp Inc (YELP.N) jumped 22.5 percent to $22.37 in a bit of a surprise for investors as it was the day insiders were free to sell their holdings.
The Dow Jones industrial average .DJI inched up 4.49 points, or 0.03 percent, to 13,107.48. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index .SPX rose 1.19 points, or 0.08 percent, to 1,410.49. The Nasdaq Composite Index .IXIC gained 4.04 points, or 0.13 percent, to 3,081.19.
The S&P dipped in the last two sessions, but the decline was less than 0.1 percent on both days. It hasn't closed with a 1 percent move in either direction since August 3.
The index has been pinned in a fairly tight range over the last three weeks, finding support at 1,400 while also unable to convincingly pierce the April high of 1,422.38, which has acted as a resistance point.
Investors are also focusing on the European Central Bank's meeting set for September 6 and a host of U.S. economic data scheduled for next week, including the Labor Department's payrolls report for August.
Wednesday's U.S. data included gross domestic product, which grew a revised 1.7 percent in the second quarter. The government figure was in line with economists' expectations and up from last month's government estimate of 1.5 percent gain.
The Fed said in its Beige Book that the U.S. economy continued to grow gradually in July and early August but that manufacturing activity was softening.
WellPoint Inc WLP.N Chief Executive Angela Braly abruptly stepped down late Tuesday following growing investor dissatisfaction with the health insurer's financial performance. Shares rose 7.7 percent to $61.80.
Advancers outpaced decliners on the NYSE by about 17 to 11 and on the Nasdaq by about 7 to 5.
(Additional reporting by Chuck Mikolajczak, Editing by Kenneth Barry)