Late-day selling sent U.S. stocks to a loss Monday and erased nearly all of the market's gains for the month. Weak earnings for drug companies pushed healthcare stocks lower, and energy shares fell as natural gas plunged.
Investors lost enthusiasm for stocks after two straight weekly gains. Healthcare stocks fell furthest as drugmakers Endo International, Mylan and Mallinckrodt all slumped. Oil prices rose, but natural gas hit a 17-year low. Banks lost ground, partly because investors are worried about potential losses on loans to energy companies.
The Dow Jones industrial average fell 123.47 points, or 0.7%, to 16,516.50. The Standard & Poor's 500 index fell 15.82 points, or 0.8%, to 1,932.23. The Nasdaq composite index fell 32.52 points, or 0.7%, to 4,557.95.
Monday's loss pushed the S&P 500 and the Nasdaq to a loss for February, their third monthly loss in a row. The Dow eked out a gain of 0.3% for its first positive month since November.
John Manley, chief equity strategist for Wells Fargo Fund Management, said investors are nervous. "A lot of investors have fantastic profits from three or four years [of gains] and they also have terrible memories from seven or eight years ago," he said. "Why not sell first and ask questions later?"
The drug and medical device company Endo lost $11.13, or 21%, to $41.81 after the company said it will wind down its Astora women's health business and set aside $834 million to cover costs from possible product liability lawsuits over vaginal mesh implants, which have been linked to thousands of injuries.
Valeant Pharmaceuticals slid after the company withdrew its financial forecasts. The stock gave up $14.85, or 18.4%, to $65.80. Mallinckrodt declined $4.21, or 6.1%, to $65.03.
With stocks on shaky ground, precious metals prices improved. The price of gold has climbed nearly 11% this month. Gold is seen as a safe investment when the market gets rough, and Steven Dunn, the head of ETF Securities' U.S. division, said investors are now more worried about the global markets than they have been in several years.
"When there is turmoil in the world, people do come back to gold as sort of that safe port," he said.
The price of gold rose 1% Monday to $1,234.40 an ounce. Over the last two weeks gold has traded near it highest price in a year.
Benchmark U.S. crude oil rose 97 cents, or 3%, to $33.75 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange. Brent crude, the global benchmark, gained 87 cents, or 2.5%, to $35.97 a barrel in London.
Natural gas prices skidded 4% to $1.71 per 1,000 cubic feet, its lowest level since March 1999. In a research note, Commodity Weather Group said it expects a "super warm pattern" to start in about a week. That will lead to less demand for heat as the winter comes to a close.
In other energy trading, wholesale gasoline rose 3 cents to $1.05 a gallon and heating oil rose 2 cents to $1.08 a gallon. Global stocks were mixed.
Policymakers at a weekend meeting of the Group of 20 rich and developing countries promised to use "all tools" at their disposal to bolster weak global growth, but they didn't announce any specific moves.
Some relief emerged with the news that China's monetary authorities had cut the amount of deposits that banks have to keep in reserve at the central bank. That should free up cash for banks to lend. The government also guided the yuan lower.
Germany's DAX slipped 0.2%, while the FTSE 100 index of British shares remained unchanged. The CAC-40 in France rose 0.9%. The yen's strength weighed on Japan's benchmark Nikkei 225, which fell 1%. The Shanghai Composite Index tumbled 2.9% after the yuan's decline.
Stock markets in Europe were helped somewhat by news that inflation across the eurozone turned negative in February as consumer prices fell. The euro fell because traders expect further monetary stimulus from the European Central Bank at its meeting on March 10.
In other metals trading, silver prices edged up 21 cents to $14.90 an ounce. Copper rose 1 cent to $2.13 a pound.