Wall St treads water ahead of Jackson Hole

US stocks fell yesterday after several days of muted trading as investors took a defensive posture before Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke’s much-awaited speech today.

Bernanke, due to speak to central bankers in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, at 1400 GMT today, is expected to keep markets guessing about the timing of another round of bond purchases.

The mood was cautious in financial markets due to the high stakes surrounding the Fed chairman’s speech as well as a meeting of the European Central Bank yesterday that is expected to take pressure off highly indebted countries.

Central banks face pressure to combat the weakness in the economy. In a sign of slowing growth, shares of mining companies fell as iron ore prices dropped to the lowest level since 2009. US-traded shares of BHP Billiton dropped 3.8 per cent to $58.11.

All 10 S&P industry sectors were lower, with technology , energy and materials leading the decline. The benchmark index dipped below the 1,400 mark at the close for the first time since 6 August.

The Dow Jones industrial average dropped 106.77 points, or 0.81 per cent, to 13,000.71. The Standard & Poor’s 500 Index dropped 11.00 points, or 0.78 per cent, to 1,399.49. The Nasdaq Composite dropped 32.47 points, or 1.05 per cent, to 3,048.71.

The S&P had barely budged over the prior three sessions – resulting in a decline of merely 0.05 per cent – and hasn’t closed with a one per cent move in either direction since 3 August.

Volume continued to be anemic with this week’s four days so far are among the five lowest for volume all year.