* Private payrolls data beats estimates
* Monsanto falls after cutting profit forecast
* Indexes up: Dow 0.05 pct, S&P 0.2 pct, Nasdaq 0.05 pct (Updates to afternoon)
By Rodrigo Campos
March 2 (Reuters) - Stocks were slightly higher on Wall Street on Wednesday as gains in energy and banks buoyed the S&P 500.
The choppy trading near the unchanged level for the day left indexes holding on to major gains posted on Tuesday.
Concern lingered that the U.S. economy was on a weaker footing than thought, but recent data including a better-than-expected reading on private sector job creation last month has helped dispel those concerns.
The improvement in U.S. economic data, including manufacturing, construction spending and auto sales earlier this week, rekindled expectations that the Federal Reserve could raise rates at least once later this year, giving support to bank shares.
"I've been encouraged by the economic numbers," said Gary Bradshaw, portfolio manager of Hodges Capital Management in Dallas, citing jobs and manufacturing data.
Crude prices hovered in and out of negative territory with U.S. crude reaching $35.17 at one point, its highest since Jan. 6.
"There's been so much pessimism around energy," said Bradshaw, "and in spite of that oil is near $35. When crude moves up it is telling the world, and particularly the U.S., is not going through a recession."
The Dow Jones industrial average was up 8.04 points, or 0.05 percent, to 16,873.12, the S&P 500 gained 4.05 points, or 0.2 percent, to 1,982.4 and the Nasdaq Composite added 2.12 points, or 0.05 percent, to 4,691.71.
The U.S. economy continues to show signs of recovery even as China and the euro zone continue to look for support from their central banks.
The materials sector was the worst performer on the S&P 500, weighed by a more than 8-percent drop in Monsanto shares after the agricultural products maker cut its earnings guidance.
The energy sector rose 2 percent and financials added 0.6 percent.
Advancing issues outnumbered declining ones on the NYSE by 1,872 to 1,146, and by 1,728 to 1,066 on the Nasdaq.
The S&P 500 posted 8 new 52-week highs and no new lows; the Nasdaq recorded 24 new highs and 24 new lows. (Reporting by Rodrigo Campos; Editing by Nick Zieminski)