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Stocks decline for first day in three as retailers disappoint

U.S. stocks fell sharply on Tuesday after a Federal Reserve official said rate hikes might come sooner than expected and Staples and other retailers offered disappointing quarterly results.

"The thing I hear most is the question of whether the sharp downturn in interest rates signals underlying weakness in the economy that we haven't recognized. It focuses investors back on the fundamental reports, so when you get a bad retail sales number, you tend to take it more seriously," said Bruce McCain, chief investment strategist at Key Private Bank.

"We prepaid a lot of this year's earnings growth with the big run up last year, and the real results are sluggish enough so there is not enough to get into high gear as far as a rally goes," McCain added.

Equities fell to session lows after the Fed's Bank of Philadelphia President Charles Plosser said the central bank's current taper pace could be too slow if the economy improves as forecast.

"We paid attention to what might be different. In a vacuum of catalysts, the market looks for something to react to, so we had a knee-jerk reaction when we hear something different," said Art Hogan, chief market strategist at Wunderlich Securities, of the hawkish comments by Plosser.

"That would be a big concern, I don't think the market believes that, we thought we were safe until 2015," said Dave Richmond, president of Richmond Brothers, referring to comments Tuesday afternoon by Plosser in Washington.

The Russell 2000 Index dropped nearly 10 percent from its March record and the Chicago Board Options Exchange Volatility Index, a measure of investor uncertainty known as the VIX, rose 3.1 percent.

Staples projected a drop in sales in the current quarter, with shares of the office supply retailer falling sharply. Urban Outfitters also fell after its quarterly report, along with Dick's Sporting Goods.

"Not only did they miss on earnings, but they lowered guidance. In the absence of any other obvious news, there is still a lack of decisive evidence that the economy is going to show a sustained gain," said Mark Luschini, chief investment strategist at Janney Montgomery Scott.

Home Depot reported first-quarter earnings below estimates, with the home improvement chain's spring selling season off to a slow start after a harsh winter in many parts of the nation. Shares of the company gained, however, as it hiked its full-year earnings forecast and said it intends to buy back as much as $3.75 billion additional shares this year.

Read MoreHome Depot misses forecasts, hurt by slow season

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After falling as much as 170 points, the Dow Jones Industrial Average ended off 137.55 points, or 0.8 percent, to 16,374.31, with Caterpillar pacing losses that included 26 of 30 components.

The S&P 500 fell 12.25 points, or 0.7 percent, to 1,872.83, with telecommunications and industrials the poorest performing and utilities faring the best among its 10 major industry groups.

The Nasdaq declined 28.92 points, or 0.7 percent, to 4,096.89.

For every share rising, more than two fell on the New York Stock Exchange, where 649 million shares traded. Composite volume neared 3 billion.

The dollar gained against other global currencies and the 10-year Treasury note yield dropped 3 basis points to 2.513 percent.

Crude futures for July delivery fell 17 cents to $102.44 a barrel; gold futures for June delivery rose 80 cents to $1294.60 an ounce.

Stocks started in the red as Wall Street reacted to quarterly reports from a number of retailers, and disappointing numbers from Caterpillar, which led blue-chip declines after the maker of construction and mining equipment disclosed in a regulatory filing that total retail sales of machines in the three-month rolling period that ended in April were off 13 percent.

"It's all about earnings and Caterpillar, which is weighing heavily on the Dow. And of course we saw Home Depot, which is basically up on the day, but it's somewhat of a surprise that they did miss on revenues," said Peter Cardillo, chief market economist at Rockwell Global Capital.

On Monday, stocks eked out a second session of gains in exceedingly light volume.

Read MoreInternet stocks boost Nasdaq

—By CNBC's Kate Gibson

Coming Up This Week:

TUESDAY: Fed's Plosser speaks, Fed's Dudley speaks, Microsoft Surface event.

WEDNESDAY: Mortgage applications, Fed's Dudley speaks, Fed's Yellen speaks, oil inventories, Fed's George speaks, Fed's Kocherlakota speaks, FOMC minutes, Boeing investor conference; Earnings from Lowe's, Target, Hormel, PetSmart, Tiffany, American Eagle Outfitters, L Brands, NetApp, Williams-Sonoma

THURSDAY: Jobless claims, Chicago Fed nat'l activity index, PMI mfg index flash, existing home sales, leading indicators, Kansas City Fed mfg index, Fed's Williams speaks, Facebook annual mtg, Intel shareholder mtg; Earnings from Best Buy, Dollar Tree, Hewlett-Packard, Gap, Marvel Tech, Ross Stores, Aeropostale, Gamestop, TiVo

FRIDAY: New home sales; Earnings from Foot Locker

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