Over in Athens, ping-pong balls are flying, as the world waits to see if China can repeat its quadruple gold sweep of four years ago. The country's best women's pair lost Thursday, but China still could pull off the sweep if its second-stringers prevail.

U.S. investors can relate, as the debate heats up over whether the bouncing trend in the stock market will finally break out on the upside or end up looking like 2000.

The ping-ponging markets posted losses Thursday, with the

Dow Jones Industrial Average

dropping 0.42% to 10,040.82, the

S&P 500

losing 0.36% to 1091.23, and the

Nasdaq Composite

falling 0.63% to 1819.89. The benchmarks ended a four-day winning streak that had followed a couple of down days, which had come after a few surges that failed to take hold. And so it has gone for weeks.

Oil edged back into investors' consciousness Thursday after three sessions of having little impact, weighing on hotel, airline, technology and retail stocks as traders again grew nervous about discretionary income. Still, the verdict for supermajor oil stocks remains mixed, suggesting the market's long-term bet continues to price in an easing.

While

ExxonMobil

(XOM) - Get Report

and

ConocoPhillips

(COP) - Get Report

rose,

ChevronTexaco

(CVX) - Get Report

,

BP

(BP) - Get Report

and

Royal Dutch/Shell

( RD) all eased.

Beneath the

sturm und drang

, it's becoming increasingly clear that the light trading days of summer are no place to settle the major debates that are roiling stocks. Among the unanswered questions are how high oil prices will actually go, how weak the economy will get, and when, if ever, tech companies will resume their fast-growing ways.

And so we're stuck in a trading range awaiting stronger data and, more importantly, stronger convictions.

Thursday favored negative answers on all three questions. Oil hit yet another closing record high on the New York Mercantile Exchange -- $48.70. The Conference Board's leading economic indicators for July dropped 0.3% for a second straight monthly decline. The Philadelphia

Fed's

August manufacturing index lost more than expected. Communications-gear maker

Ciena

(CIEN) - Get Report

and semiconductor designer

Synopsys

(SNPS) - Get Report

issued pessimistic guidance on future profits.

The reports reversed feelings for the past few days that oil might be peaking, the economy growing and tech recovering. Gainers on Thursday included oil-drilling service companies like

Key Energy

(KEG) - Get Report

and

Global Industries

(GLBL)

that stand to profit from increased exploration, as well as gold miners

Newmont

(NEM) - Get Report

and

Coeur d'Alene

(CDE) - Get Report

. Gold prices gain in bear markets and during times of uncertainty and dollar weakness.

Thursday's losers included most of the big gainers of the past few sessions, such as tech bellwethers

Microsoft

(MSFT) - Get Report

and

Intel

(INTC) - Get Report

. The two, which comprise about 15% of the Nasdaq Composite, had gained an average of 2.2% and 4.6%, respectively, over the past four days. Microsoft lost 1.24% and Intel 0.95% on Thursday.

Airlines Southwest

(LUV) - Get Report

,

AMR

(AMR)

and

JetBlue

(JBLU) - Get Report

-- which suffer when the economy slows or fuel prices rise -- lost 2% on average Thursday after rising earlier in the week.

The Olympics end next week, but expect the stock market's ping-pong match to continue until fall. Markets don't usually hit bottom in the dog days of August. Look back to 2002, when the Nasdaq Composite hit a five-year low at the beginning of August only to fall another 8% before finally bouncing for good in October.

In 1990, the same was true for the S&P 500, which sought a bottom twice in August before hitting a final low in October.

For Whom the Bell Tolls

A quick note on

Google's

(GOOG) - Get Report

IPO: The much-maligned offering started trading on Thursday after being priced at the low end of an already lowered range and immediately shot up almost 20%. Investors who bought at the auction got shares for $85. Others mostly had to pay $99 or more. The

stock closed at $100.34, up 18%.

Part of the explanation for the first-day surge arises from the peculiar rules for bidding. Investors had to register by last week, when the expected price range was still $108 to $135, if they wanted to participate. Only after registration closed and bidding began did Google see that it would have to price lower and issued the revised range of $85 to $95. Investors uninterested in buying at the original range may not have registered and so couldn't bid for shares at the IPO.

Ignoring the droning buzz of Wall Street apologists, it's pretty clear who the winners and losers were in the unusual Dutch auction process.

The company completed the largest-ever Internet IPO (excluding

Verizon's

(VZ) - Get Report

spinoff of

Genuity

) and raised $1.2 billion under ugly market conditions that forced the cancellation of eight other deals this month that were being priced the traditional Wall Street way.

Initial Google buyers were sitting on an almost 20% gain after the first day of trading. And Wall Street firms got underwriting fees of less than 3%, or half their usual take. Now it's up to the boys from Stanford to invest the bounty wisely and keep the stock price moving in the right direction for the long term. With Google's 40% operating margin, the process could be rewarding for shareholders.People can vote in this thing from 4 p.m. today till 9:15 a.m. Monday.Tile:

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In keeping with TSC's editorial policy, Pressman doesn't own or short individual stocks. He also doesn't invest in hedge funds or other private investment partnerships. He invites you to send

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