In addition to energy, the weakest sectors in the broad market, which was completely in the red, were health care, consumer cyclicals, capital goods, technology and basic materials.
Breadth was solidly negative on both the New York Stock Exchange and Nasdaq. Volume totaled 3.22 billion on the Big Board and 1.79 billion on the Nasdaq.
The Federal Reserve released its Beige Book survey, finding that economic activity "generally expanded modestly" since its last report.
"The New York District noted a leveling off in economic activity, and Kansas City indicated some slowing in the pace of growth," the report said. "In general, other Districts reported that growth continued at a modest pace."Earlier, the Census Bureau released wholesale inventories data showing an as-expected rise of 0.5% in August after a downwardly-revised 0.6% increase in July. The FTSE 100 in London finished down 0.58% and the DAX in Germany slumped by 0.41% Wednesday. The International Monetary Fund warned that if European leaders failed to carry out decisive policy measures urgently, the pressure on European banks could result in asset shrinkage by as much as $2.8 trillion to $4.5 trillion through the end of next year. The Nikkei Average in Tokyo closed down 1.98% and the Hang Seng in Hong Kong settled off 0.08% as wholesale auto deliveries in China shrank for the first time in eight months in September as escalating territorial tensions between Japan and China led consumers to refrain from purchasing vehicles manufactured by Japanese automakers Toyota (TM) and Nissan (NSANY). November crude oil futures surrendered $1.14 to settle at $91.25 a barrel. December gold futures added a dime to close at $1,765.10 an ounce. The benchmark 10-year Treasury rose 12/32, diluting the yield to 1.678%. The dollar was up 0.02%, according to the dollar index.