Stocks posted slight gains before the bell Tuesday, after four consecutive days of losses amid speculation about when the U.S. will begin to tighten monetary policy.
U.S. stock futures edged slightly higher, although there was little news to shake investors out of their recent downbeat mood.
"No new news, just the same fear," wrote Societe Generale analyst Kit Juckes in a market report.
The release Wednesday of minutes from the Federal Reserve's last monetary policy meeting will be closely watched for clues as to when the central bank will begin tapering its $85 billion a month in bond purchases.
More signals could come from the Kansas City Fed's annual conference in Jackson Hole, Wyo., later this week.
U.S. stocks finished slightly lower Monday as bond yields crept higher, with the Dow Jones industrial average and S&P 500 recording their first four-day losing streak of the year. Still, the indexes are both up about 15% for the year, and the Nasdaq has gained 19%.
Quarterly results came out before the opening bell from a host of companies. J.C. Penney ( posted a )big loss that was worse than the forecasts. Best Buy ( reported a surged in profit, which the CEO attributed to aggressive cost-cutting. )Home Depot (announced a gain in quarterly net profit and raised its guidance for 2013. )
European markets were lower in midday trading, with investors tracking losses on Wall Street and paring back risk before the Fed minutes.
Asia markets were also lower across the board on worries that possible changes to the Fed's bond-buying program will suck capital out of regional markets. Japan's Nikkei dropped 2.6%, the Hang Seng lost 2.3% and the Shanghai Composite was off 0.6%.
Shares in China Everbright Securities fell 10% as investors had their first chance to respond to restrictions placed on the broker's activities after trading glitches on Friday and Monday.
Indian stocks fell again as the rupee continued to plumb new lows against the dollar.