Updated from 4:18 p.m. EST

The market has been fickle for months, and that was the case again Wednesday before Wall Street's major averages finally ended lower, with technology shares bearing the brunt of the selling.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average closed down 34.95 points, or 0.28%, at 12,466.16, and the S&P 500 lost 7.75 points, or 0.56%, at 1373.20. The tech-heavy Nasdaq Composite was the weakest of the three, down 23 points, or 0.95%, to 2394.59.

Stocks visited both positive and negative territory, even in the final hour, as traders contemplated a host of news from the financial sector and another round of economic data, including the beige book from the Federal Reserve.

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Despite the decline, breadth and volume was fairly strong. On the New York Stock Exchange 5.34 billion shares changed hands, as advancers matched decliners. Volume on the Nasdaq reached 3.39 billion shares, with winners edging losers by an 8-to-7 margin.

"As much as investors would like to push stocks higher, this is a very skittish market," said Paul Nolte, director of investments with Hinsdale Associates. "We received good news from financials but investors are still not yet comfortable that other issues are behind us. The market is trying hard to rally, but the continued subprime issues are keeping a wet blanket on the stocks."

On the Dow, an advance in JPMorgan Chase ( JPM) provided an offset to disappointing numbers from semiconductor giant Intel ( INTC), though ultimately the bank couldn't prevent the index from finishing in the red.

Before the opening bell, JPMorgan said its fourth-quarter profit fell 34% from a year ago amid a $1.3 billion writedown tied to subprime mortgage losses. JPMorgan earned 86 cents a share, falling short of the Thomson First Call estimate.

Still, the results were much better than the broker's peers, and the writedown was lower than some on Wall Street expected. Its shares rose 5.8% to close at $41.43.

The Amex Securities Broker/Dealer Index was up 1.4% thanks to JPMorgan's gain. Among other financial winners, E*Trade Financial ( ETFC), Lehman Brothers ( LEH) and Goldman Sachs ( GS) were higher by 2.2% or more.

Other financial subsector indices also gained ground. The KBW Bank Index advanced 2.3%, and the Nasdaq Financial 100 Index tacked on 1.3%.

Elsewhere in the financial sector, shares of Ambac Financial ( ABK) slid 38.7% after the company slashed its dividend by 67% to 7 cents a share. Ambac also said that CEO Robert Genader would be leaving the firm and will be replaced by director Michael Callen. Ambac dropped $8.17 to $12.97.

Among other decliners in the group, fellow bond insurer MBIA ( MBI) tumbled 16.5%. Citigroup ( C) was off 2.6%, and TD Ameritrade ( AMTD) slipped 1.6%.

Overall though, the general strength in financials helped overcome a weak start for equities prompted by a slide in shares of Intel, who fell 12.4% to $19.88 after it gave a forecast that indicated first-quarter sales could come in below analysts' consensus target. The average estimate is $10 billion, but Intel is predicting between $9.4 billion and $10 billion.

Several other tech giants fell, as well. Apple ( AAPL), Cisco ( CSCO), SanDisk ( SNDK) and Nvidia ( NVDA) all ended lower by 2.7% or more.

"This is a standard start of earnings season, as people are digesting all the bad news," said Jason Pride, director of research with Haverford Investments. "Equities are relatively well-priced when compared to other asset classes."

Retail stocks, which have been among the most battered amid heavy shorting, helped to counterbalance bad news from the tech sector, with the S&P Retail Index rising 2.5%. Among individual names, Sears Holdings ( SHLD) jumped 4.9%, Lowe's ( LOW) added 4.5%, and Dow component Home Depot ( HD) climbed 3.8%.

In other corporate news, Boeing ( BA) was a winner on the Dow after the company said it will push back deliveries of its 787 Dreamliner by about three months, a delay that's shorter than some observers had feared would be necessary. Boeing finished the session up 2.6% at $79.87.

As for the data, the Labor Department got things started by saying the December consumer price index, which measures inflation on the retail level, rose a greater-than-expected 0.3%. The core number, excluding food and energy, advanced 0.2% and met estimates.

The core CPI figure, a key measure of inflation, is now up 2.4% over the last year, putting it above the Fed's so-called comfort zone. The report follows Tuesday's producer price index, which unexpectedly fell 0.1% last month. The core PPI rose 0.2%, as had been forecast.

U.S. Treasury prices retreated. The 10-year note eased 15/32 in price, yielding 3.73%. The 30-year bond was off 1-3/32 in price, yielding 4.33%. The dollar, meanwhile, rallied against the world's major currencies.

Also on the economic docket, the Fed said industrial production was unchanged last month. Capacity utilization fell to 81.4% from 81.6% in November. Economists had expected industrial production to fall 0.2% in December.

The major averages were back and forth following the release of the Fed's regional survey known as the beige book. The anecdotal report on economic conditions in 12 districts around the country will be considered at the Federal Open Market Committee's policy meeting in two weeks.

According to the document, economic activity expanded at a "slower pace" than in the previous survey period. The report noted that most retailers saw subdued holiday spending and that a glut of available homes kept pressure on housing prices and construction activity. On the positive side, reports on tourism were strong.

"The pace of sales continued to be sluggish, and inventories persisted at historically high levels according to most Districts," the beige book read. "Residential mortgage lending continued to contract in all Districts while refinancing activity varied."

Commodity futures fell hard. Gold pulled back from near-record levels, shedding $20.60 to $882 an ounce. Oil slumped after the Energy Department's inventory report showed a greater-than-expected rise in crude inventories last week. Oil ended down $1.06 at $90.84 a barrel.

Commodity-related stocks were punished by the declines. Harmony Gold ( HMY) and Yamana Gold ( AUY) fell more than 7%, while Exxon Mobil ( XOM), Halliburton ( HAL) and Chevron ( CVX) lost 2.3% or more.

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