NEW YORK -- The late-summer lull is about to end.
Stocks fell Thursday, with investors too worried about high gas prices and stagnant employment to be impressed by higher consumer spending.
But trading volume was light, the market's direction was steady, and there wasn't much in the way of major economic news.
That could all change Friday. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke is scheduled to speak at 10 a.m. EDT, and investors will be listening closely for his opinion on the economy and whether the Fed will take more action to try to prop it up.
Scott Freeze, president of Street One Financial in Huntingdon Valley, Pa., had the feeling that he was experiencing the calm before the storm. He went golfing Thursday morning with clients, figuring there wouldn't be many more chances to leave the office.
Many of his employees and clients planned to come to work Friday morning, stick around to see what Bernanke says, and then leave early for the long weekend if it's nothing of consequence.
"There's so little going on, it's all wait and see before Bernanke's speech," Freeze said. "I'm sure next week will be a much different scenario."
Some thought Bernanke's speech, for all the hype, would end up being a non-event. The statements from Fed officials are sometimes too ambiguous to really guide the market. And there's a lot of doubt that the Fed can do anything for the economy anyway.
"Some people hang on every word, they try to figure out what kind of briefcase he's carrying," said John Lekas, senior portfolio manager at Leader Capital in Portland, Ore. "I think that's a waste of time. It doesn't matter that much."
For much of August, with many traders on vacation and a dearth of major economic news, the market has lumbered more than galloped. On Thursday, about 2.4 billion shares were traded on the New York Stock Exchange. The average for the year so far is about 3.7 billion.
The Dow Jones industrial average closed down 106.77 points to 13,000.71. The Standard & Poor's 500 fell 11.01 to 1,399.48. The Nasdaq composite slid 32.48 to 3,048.71.
The economic news that did surface Thursday was uninspiring to investors.
The government reported that consumer spending rose in July from June, after a flat June and a decline in May. Separately, retailers like Target Corp., Gap Inc. and Macy's Inc. reported higher-than-expected August sales.
But rather than send stocks up, investors instead worried that the gains were only temporary, driven by back-to-school shopping that will soon peter out.
Gas prices and job prospects, which are key when people decide how much to spend, were not encouraging. Hurricane Isaac helped push the national average price for a gallon of gas to $3.83 from $3.80 Wednesday, according to the AAA. The government reported that the four-week moving average for unemployment claims also ticked higher.
Freeze, from Street One, doubts the jobs picture will improve soon, with so many companies not hiring. He thinks it's disingenuous when they blame their hiring drought on the uncertainty of not knowing who will be president next year.
"They're saying, `I don't know what my tax situation will be,' or `I don't know if Obama will be president and I don't want to deal with Obama's health care plan,"' he said. "I think these are just easy excuses for the corporations to use, because quite frankly the production levels and the revenue they're generating don't warrant hiring new employees."
Among the stocks that did make notable moves:
--Pandora Media Inc. jumped more than 14 percent, rising $1.44 to $11.52. The Internet radio company reported big increases in revenue from advertising, subscriptions, and from listeners accessing the website from mobile devices.
--TiVo Inc., known for its digital video recorders, fell more than 3 percent, losing 32 cents to $9.04, after reporting a larger quarterly loss and missing analysts' revenue predictions.
--Vera Bradley, the maker of high-end handbags, lost almost 9 percent, slipping $2.09 to $21.53. Weak sales in May and June forced the company to cut its earnings and revenue predictions for the year.