Stocks took a break on Thursday from the breakneck rallies that have characterized trading since late last week.
Benchmark indexes spent much of the day lower with crude oil and earnings remaining a major driver of direction. The S&P 500 fell 0.47%, the Dow Jones Industrial Average was down 0.25%, and the Nasdaq slid 1.03%.
"Markets took a little bit of a breather today," Tom Siomades, head of Hartford Funds Investment Consulting Group, told TheStreet. But he added that "people are still very cautious... They're picking up things that are at bargain prices now but I don't think it's an overall sign of relief at this point."
Stocks secured their first three-day winning streak of the year on Wednesday as concerns over oil, the U.S. economy and the Federal Reserve's rate-hike plans were all addressed in turn. The S&P 500 broke out of correction territory and is now down less than 10% from its 52-week high.
But worries over crude oil resurfaced to erase a morning rally on Thursday after weekly inventories showed an increase of 2.1 million barrels last week. Analysts had expected the Energy Information Administration data to show a decline of 1.4 million barrels.
Commodities trading also was active on reports Saudi Arabia is "not prepared" to limit oil production, according to AFP. The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries attempted this week to come to an agreement on a production freeze to stabilize oil prices. West Texas Intermediate crude oil climbed 1% to $30.96 a barrel, falling below $31.
The energy sector was one of the weaker performers on markets Thursday. Among major oilers, Royal Dutch Shell (RDS.A) , Chevron (CVX) - Get Report , Schlumberger SLB, and China Petroleum (SNP) - Get Report were all lower, while the Energy Select Sector SPDR ETF (XLE) - Get Report slid 1%.
Gold prices ended higher as investors favored safe-haven assets over riskier equities. Gold for April delivery closed 1.2% higher at $1,226.30 an ounce.
Wal-Mart (WMT) - Get Report dominated the earnings calendar on Thursday. The world's largest retailer pressured the Dow after reporting disappointing quarterly sales. Wal-Mart generated $129.7 billion in its fourth quarter, down more than 1% and below consensus of $130.5 billion. Same-store sales rose 0.6%, though only two-thirds the growth rate expected, as consumers failed to spend their savings from lower fuel prices. Wal-Mart also raised its annual dividend to $2 a share from $1.96.
IBM (IBM) - Get Report was the best performer on the Dow, increasing nearly 6%, after agreeing to buy Truven Health Analytics for $2.6 billion. The acquisition strengthens IBM's health care portfolio, particularly its Watson Health business unit.
The labor market continued to show its strength on Thursday as weekly jobless claims fell to their lowest level since November. The number of new claims for unemployment benefits fell 7,000 to 262,000 in the past week. The four-week jobless claims average, a read that smooths out week-to-week fluctuations, slid 8,000 to 273,250.
Economic activity in the Philadelphia region improved in February, though remained in contraction. The Philadelphia Fed Index rose to negative 2.8 this month from a reading of negative 3.5 in January. New orders and the employment index were weaker.
Fed watchers got an unexpected bit of news Wednesday evening after St. Louis Fed President James Bullard said it would be "unwise" for the central bank to continue to raise rates in the face of inflation pressure and financial market volatility. The voting member of the Federal Open Market Committee had supported an earlier hike for much of last year.