Wal-Mart Stores Inc. reported third-quarter earnings that beat analysts' expectations, though sales at stores open at least a year dropped during the quarter. The nation's biggest retailer said sales at existing stores would range from a drop of 1 percent to a gain of 1 percent in its fourth quarter. Sales at stores open at least a year are an important indicator of a retailer's strength.

The mammoth company is seen as a key indicator of consumer spending trends. Investors have worried for months that consumers are so strained by unemployment and lower home prices that they won't spend more and help propel a recovery in the economy.

Frank Ingarra Jr., co-portfolio manager at Hennessy Funds in Stamford, Conn., said stocks had been due for a break after steep gains in the past week. The Dow and the S&P 500 index closed at their highest levels since October 2008 on Wednesday.

"There is very light volume so it looks like the market wants to do a little consolidating here," he said.

The Dow fell 93.79, or 0.9 percent, to 10,197.47. It was the biggest drop since Oct. 30 and only the second time this month it fell. The Dow had risen 519 points, or 5.3 percent, in the prior six days ¿ its longest stretch of gains since late August.

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