The Dow snapped a three-day rally Wednesday, while the S&P 500 and Nasdaq finished nearly flat in lackluster trading, as investors digested a batch of corporate earnings against a disappointing durable goods orders report.
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The Dow Jones Industrial Average slid 43.16 points to finish at 14,676.30, dragged by AT&T and P&G. Microsoft and Alcoa led the blue-chip gainers.
The CBOE Volatility Index (VIX), widely considered the best gauge of fear in the market, ended above 13.
Among the key S&P sectors, energy led the gainers, while telecoms tumbled. The telecom sector logged its worst day since August 2011, when the U.S. lost its prized triple-A credit rating from S&P.
Among earnings, Apple beat on the top and bottom lines, but investors were disappointed with the company's comments on slower growth and lower margins and a lack of new products on the near horizon. Adding to woes, at least eleven brokerages slashed their price target on the company. Apple shares ended slightly lower after moving between gains and losses for most of the session.
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Dow component Procter & Gamble turned in quarterly earnings that beat expectations, but shares declined sharply as the household goods manufacturer posted outlook for the current quarter that fell short of Wall Street forecasts.
Yum Brands soared after the parent company of KFC reported earnings that topped expectations, despite a drop in sales in its top China market. The company also reiterated its earnings forecast for the year.
AT&T tumbled more than 5 percent after the telecommunications company posted revenue that disappointed analysts and reported a net loss of cellphone subscribers.
Rival Sprint Nextel posted a smaller than expected quarterly loss, even as it saw steep customer losses from the Nextel network it is shutting down. Sprint's board is currently evaluating a $25.5 billion acquisition offer from satellite TV service Dish Network, which challenged Sprint's October agreement to sell 70 percent of the company to Japan's SoftBank for $20.1 billion.
Ford Motor beat Wall Street expectations on profit and revenue, but shares ended slightly lower.
And Edwards Lifesciences plunged more than 20 percent to lead the S&P 500 laggards after the medical devices maker missed Wall Street expectations and handed in weaker-than-expected current-quarter and full-year guidance.
"Companies continue to have an unrelenting focus on being efficient," said Matt Kaufler, portfolio manager of the Federated Clover Fund. "It will continue to be a tough revenue environment for the next quarter and earnings expectation for the year will be pulled in a bit."
"At the same time, I don't think things will be disastrous," he continued. "We had a great first quarter in the market, so with things being reined in a bit, the market might do a bit of a sideways dance."
Adding to woes, durable goods orders tumbled 5.7 percent in March, logging their steepest drop in seven months, according to the Commerce Department. Excluding transportation, orders declined 1.4 percent after falling 1.7 percent the prior month.
European shares ended higher after posting the best one-day gains of the year on Tuesday. Bank stocks were in focus, with Barclays, Credit Suisse and Nordea Bank posting first quarter results. Credit Suisse and Nordea beat analysts' expectations, while Barclays narrowly missed.
In addition, Ericsson, the world's number one mobile phone equipment maker, reported a bigger-than-expected fall in first quarter profit. However, Swiss pharmaceutical firm Novartis posted upbeat sales numbers and surprised investors by announcing a new CFO, Harry Kirsch.
Also on the economic front, weekly mortgage applications edged higher last week as rates declined for the fifth-consecutive week, according to the Mortgage Bankers Association.
The Treasury sold $35 billion in 5-year notes at a high yield of 0.710 percent. The bid-to-cover ratio, an indicator of demand, was 2.86.
—By CNBC's JeeYeon Park (Follow JeeYeon on Twitter: @JeeYeonParkCNBC)
Coming Up This Week:
THURSDAY: Jobless claims, natural gas inventories, 7-yr note auction, Fed balance sheet/money supply, Barclays annual mtg, Herbalife shareholder mtg, Intuitive Surgical annual mtg, J&J shareholder mtg, NYSE Euronext shareholder mtg, Pfizer shareholder mtg; Earnings from Altria, AstraZeneca, Bristol-Myers, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, 3M, UPS, Altera, Amazon, Baidu, Expedia, Starbucks, Coinstar
FRIDAY: GDP, consumer sentiment, AT&T shareholder mtg; Earnings from Chevron, Honda, DR Horton
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