NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Stocks fell for the fourth straight session Wednesday as nagging worries about the political disarray in Greece and its future within the eurozone continued to weigh on sentiment.
The Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 33 points, or 0.3%, to finish at 12,598. The blue-chip index ran as high as 12,722 early in the session and closed just above its low for the day of 12,597.
Sharper-than-expected increases in housing and industrial production data had inspired buyers earlier in the session but the market lost steam in the afternoon, similar to the pattern on Tuesday when stocks saw a steady decline in the final hour of trading. The Dow has now closed in the negative for 10 of the past 11 sessions.
The S&P 500 dipped nearly 6 points or 0.4% to close at 1325 after peaking above 1341 earlier in the day. The Nasdaq shed nearly 20 points, or 0.7%, to settle at 2874.
"Most of the news about Europe is already out, although that doesn't mean anxieties won't weigh on the markets," said Brian Gendreau, market strategist for Cetera Financial Group.
Adding to the negative sentiment late Wednesday, minutes of the Federal Reserve's
monthly policy meeting also flagged fiscal concerns for the United States, as the central bank warned of sharp fiscal tightening in 2013 unless Congress reaches an agreement on the federal budget.
Breadth within the Dow was negative with 17 of the index's 30 components ending in the red. The biggest percentage decliners in the index were Alcoa (AA)
, American Express (AXP)
, Bank of America (BAC)
, Hewlett-Packard (HPQ)
, Intel (INTC)
, Microsoft (MSFT)
, and United Technologies (UTX)
General Electric (GE)
was by far the biggest blue-chip gainer, rising nearly 4%, on news that its GE Capital financial unit had resumed paying a dividend to the parent company. GE Capital is planning to pay a dividend of $475 million to GE in the second quarter, and it expects to fork over a special dividend of $4.5 billion to the parent company in 2012.
Other Dow components on the rise included Pfizer (PFE)
, Procter & Gamble (PG)
, Cisco (CSCO)
and Merck (MRK)
In the broader market, number of losers outpaced winners by 2-to-1 on both the New York Stock Exchange
. The weakest sectors were the financials, technology and consumer cyclicals, while defensive plays like conglomerates, consumer non-cyclicals and healthcare fared best.
On Tuesday, the major U.S. equity indices all finished at their worst levels in more than three months as Greece's ongoing uncertainty continued to damage sentiment.
After being unable to form a coalition government amid vastly conflicting views on the country's austerity measures, Greece now faces new elections in June. Still, French and German leaders, who met Tuesday in Berlin, indicated that Greece should stay in the single-currency bloc and that they would consider new ways to stimulate economic growth in the country.
Amid the uncertainty about Greece's future, €700 million was withdrawn from the Greek banking system recently, said the country's president, Karolos Papoulias. The Financial Times
was reporting that Athens-based bankers said more than €1.2 billion of deposits were withdrawn on Monday and Tuesday.
Reports that the European Central Bank was stopping monetary operations with some Greek banks because they are undercapitalized also added to fears that the country could ultimately exit the eurozone.
London's FTSE closed lower by 0.6% and the DAX in Germany settled down 0.3%. The euro fell to a four-month low against the dollar Wednesday.
"If we start seeing a big selloff that really spooks people, that could bring some volume in in a hurry and not the kind of volume that people want," said Brian Lazorishak, portfolio manager and quantitative analyst at Chase Investment Council.
In the U.S., investors were parsing the minutes of the FOMC meeting for cues that the central bank might consider more quantitative easing.
Several officials indicated "that additional monetary policy accommodation could be necessary if the economic recovery lost momentum or the downside risks to the forecast became great enough," the minutes said.
The minutes also revealed that the Fed was concerned about the impending fiscal cliff in the U.S. Officials expect the government to pose a drag on the economy and expect a "sharp fiscal tightening" in 2013. The uncertainty over the budget could lead businesses to slow down investment and hiring.
Other economic news Tuesday was positive. The U.S. Commerce Department reported Wednesday that housing starts rose to a seasonally-adjusted annual rate of 717,000 in April from an upwardly revised 699,000 units in March, topping economists' expectations.
However, building permits fell to a pace of 715,000 units in April from an upwardly revised 769,000 in March, worse than the fall to 730,000 expected by economists.
The Federal Reserve said that industrial production rose 1.1% in April, nearly double the expected 0.6% rise expected by economists, from a downwardly-revised fall of 0.6% in March.
The report also said that capacity utilization jumped to 79.2% for April from a downwardly revised 78.4% in March. April's was the highest utilization rate since April 2008 and better than the rise to 79% expected by economists.