Updated from 4:03 p.m. EST

An afternoon rally fizzled Wednesday, and stocks ended slightly lower following disappointing economic reports and a decision by OPEC to go ahead with crude oil production cuts.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average closed down 24 points, or 0.23%, to 10,357.70; the S&P 500 lost 0.79 points to 1126.21; and the Nasdaq ended down 6.41 points, or 0.32%, to 1994.22, after closing above the key 2000 level Tuesday for the first time in three weeks.

Volume on the New York Stock Exchange approached 1.5 billion shares, where advancers outnumbered decliners by about 6 to 4. Over 1.8 billion shares changed hands on the Nasdaq, where advancers edged out decliners by about 5 to 4.

"I think the last few trading days have been influenced by the fact that it's the end of the first quarter of the year, and so there's likely to have been some portfolio window-dressing," said Gail Dudack, chief investment strategist at SunGuard Institutional Brokerage. "Tomorrow is likely to be a very quiet day, as the market awaits the employment news on Friday."

For the second day in a row, stocks battled back in the afternoon, erasing losses, caused in part by stubbornly high oil prices.

"Oil is a big issue now because it's bringing up fears of another oil crisis, like the one that happened in the early 1970s," said Daniel Morgan, a fund manager at Noble Financial Group. "Very high oil prices impact all Americans and their wallets on a day-to-day basis, and it just adds to all the other bad news out there, from terrorism to slow job growth."

"If oil prices continue to go up, that could be another reason for the Fed not to raise rates," Morgan added.

Crude oil futures fell 1.3%, down 45 cents to $35.76, despite OPEC's the move of the Organization of Petroleum exporting countries to tighten supply starting April 1. The move comes as a new survey finds U.S. gasoline prices reaching a record high of $1.758 a gallon this week, with no signs the increase will abate.

In other markets, the 10-year Treasury note was up 13/32 to yield 3.84%, while the dollar was weaker against the yen and euro. The dollar sold off briefly on rumors that Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan had suffered a heart attack. The central bank had no comment, although there were media reports saying the Fed chief was OK.

On the economic front, factory orders rose 0.3% in February, though economists had expected orders to increase 1.5%. And the Chicago Purchasing Managers' survey of manufacturing activity also came in lower than expected at 57.6. The consensus forecast of economists was for a reading of 61, down from February's 63.6 level.

Investors are focused on Friday's March employment report, due out from the government at 8:30 a.m. EST, which is expected to show 123,000 jobs were added to nonfarm payrolls during the month.

Overseas markets were mixed. In Europe, London's FTSE 100 closed down 0.6% to 4386 and Germany's Xetra DAX lost 0.5% to 3857. In Asia, Japan's Nikkei rose 0.2% to 11,715 and Hong Kong's Hang Seng rose 0.3% to 12,682. The Nikkei just ended a fiscal year in which it gained more than 40%.

Among stocks in the news, QLogic ( QLGC) closed down $9.69, or 22.7%, to $33, after lowering fourth-quarter earnings and revenue estimates, while ATI Technologies ( ATYT) gained 5 cents, or 0.3%, to $16.35 after reporting second-quarter earnings that beat forecasts and guiding its third quarter in line.

Monsanto ( MON) posted a jump in second-quarter earnings, meeting expectations, because of increased corn seed sales and higher revenue from its biotech seed products. It earned $154 million, or 57 cents a share, up from $100 million, or 38 cents a share, a year earlier. Its shares added 59 cents, or 1.6%, to $36.73.

Best Buy ( BBY) released a stellar fourth-quarter earnings report, boosted by strong holiday sales. The retailer earned $469 million, or $1.42 a share, up from $378 million, or $1.16 a share, in the same quarter last year. Analysts were expecting earnings to be lower, at $1.39 a share. Its shares closed up $3.25, or 6.7%, to $51.65.

Meanwhile, its competitor, Circuit City ( CC), also reported higher fourth-quarter earnings, beating expectations, helped by lower expenses. The electronics retailer reported profits of $89.6 million, or 43 cents a share, up from $70.9 million, or 36 cents a share, in the same quarter last year. Wall Street expected earnings to stay flat. Its shares gained 61 cents, or 5.7%, to $11.31.

Thursday's session will begin with an employment data appetizer, last week's initial jobless claims figures due out at 8:30 a.m. EST, along with February's producer price index data. Jobless claims are expected to rise to 340,000 from the previous week's 339,000, while economists predict the PPI will increase 0.4%, down from January's 0.6% jump.

At 10:00 a.m. EST, the Census Bureau is expected to report that construction spending was unchanged in February after posting a 0.3% decline in January, and the Institute for Supply Management will release the March results of its manufacturing index. Economists predict the index will drop to 59.5 after reaching 61.4 in February.

Before the opening bell, Pier 1 Imports ( PIR) is expected to report fourth-quarter earnings of 54 cents a share, down from 57 cents a share in the same quarter last year.