U.S. stocks sank Wednesday, pulling indexes further below record highs hit earlier in the week. The drop was modest but broad: nine of the 10 sectors in the Standard & Poor's 500 index lost ground.
Given the market's recent run, it's only natural for investors to turn cautious, said Terry Sandven, senior equity strategist at U.S. Bank Wealth Management. On Monday, the S&P 500 reached an all-time high while the Nasdaq crossed the 5,000 mark for the first time in nearly 15 years.
“We're in wait-and-see mode,” Sandven said. “Prices are definitely stretched, especially when earnings expectations are being set lower.”
The S&P 500 gave up 9.25 points, or 0.4 percent, to 2,098.53.
The Dow Jones industrial average lost 106.47 points, or 0.6 percent, to 18,096.90. The Nasdaq composite fell 12.76 points, or 0.3 percent, to 4,967.14.
Alcoa's stock sank 4 percent following news that analysts at Bank of America cut their ratings on the aluminum giant. BofA's analysts expect prices for aluminum to lose strength as China increases its exports. Alcoa lost 59 cents to $14.59.
Abercrombie & Fitch posted quarterly profits that beat analysts' estimates but its sales fell short. A top executive at the retailer warned that it will likely face trouble from a stronger dollar. Abercrombie's stock plunged $3.72, or 16 percent, to $20.27.
With all but 12 big companies in the S&P 500 having turned in their fourth-quarter results, overall earnings are on track to increase 7.7 percent, according to S&P Capital IQ. That's much better than some had feared.
Forecasts for the first three months, however, have been slashed. In early December, analysts projected an 8.6 percent increase in corporate earnings for the first quarter. Today, they expect them to shrink 2.6 percent.
ADP, a payroll processing company, reported Wednesday that its survey showed U.S. businesses added more than 200,000 people to their payrolls in February, the latest sign of strong hiring. The survey came two days before the government's release of its monthly employment report on Friday. Economists forecast that the economy added 240,000 jobs last month and the unemployment rate slipped to 5.6 percent from 5.7 percent.
U.S. economic growth appears steady despite reports out earlier this week showing declines in construction spending and car sales, according to Jim O'Sullivan, chief U.S. economist at High-Frequency Economics. “We expect another fairly strong rise in payrolls and a drop in the unemployment rate in the February employment report on Friday,” O'Sullivan said in a report to clients.
In Europe, both France's CAC-40 index and Germany's DAX gained 1 percent. Britain's FTSE 100 picked up 0.4 percent.
Two reports showed hints of life in Europe's economy. Retail sales increased by 1.1 percent in January, the first time since records began in 2000 that they've grown for four consecutive months. Meanwhile, a key gauge of business activity showed growth in February across all four of the region's biggest economies: Germany, France, Italy and Spain.
In the market for U.S. government bonds, the yield on the 10-year Treasury note held steady at 2.12 percent.
Most precious and industrial metals traded lower. Gold fell $3.50 to settle at $1,200.90 an ounce, and silver slipped 14 cents to $16.16 an ounce. Copper settled at $2.66 a pound, nearly unchanged.
Benchmark U.S. crude rose $1.01 to settle at $51.53 a barrel in New York. Brent crude, the international benchmark, fell 47 cents to $60.55 in London.
In other trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange:
— Wholesale gasoline fell 2.4 cents to close at $1.926 a gallon.
— Heating oil fell 3.9 cents to close at $1.901 a gallon.
— Natural gas rose 5.7 cents to close at $2.769 per 1,000 cubic feet.