For those of you keeping score at home: It's stocks 0, worry warts 4.
The Dow Jones Industrial Average racked up its fourth straight decline, falling about 30 points, or 0.3 percent. The S&P 500 shed 0.2 percent and the Nasdaq dropped 0.1 percent.
Worries about growth in China have started to rattle investors here, who are concerned that the U.S. can't go this recovery alone.
"We can't have the kind of recovery we've planned without China," said Tracey Ryniec, an analyst at Zacks.com.
As a result, stocks have fallen for four straight days, including a 2-percent declineTuesday, and struggled to hold onto even the smallest gains in today's session.
A couple of misses in today's economic reports exacerbated the market jitters: ADP said private employers cut 298,000 jobsin August, more than the 250,000 expected, and factory orders rose 1.3 percentin July, a much slower pace than the 2.2 percent expected.
The key data point this week will be the August jobs report, due out on Friday. Economists expect to see that 233,000 jobs were lost, slightly fewer than the 247,000 lost in July, and that the unemployment rate ticked up to 9.5 percent.
"[W]e reckon Friday's official number will be about 250K. That's still terrible, but it does mean that the trend towards smaller net job losses continues," Ian Shepherdson, chief U.S. economist at High Frequency Economics, wrote in a note to clients. "The move to payroll stability ... is some way off yet, though."
On an encouraging note, Federal Reserve policy makers are confident the recession is endingand are therefore more comfortable slowing down their economic-recovery plan, according to minutes from their last meeting.
And the CBOE Volatility Index, widely considered the best gauge of fear in the market, eased about 1 percent, ending below 29, after surging 12 percent in the previous session.
"Fundamentally, it's a good time to be in the market," said Theresa Harezlak, a financial advisor at Savant Capital Management. "There is absolutely potential for more growth in this market," she said.
Hardware stocks rose following a couple of pieces of news from the sector: Dell has agreed to sell Brocade networking and storage gear through its sales operations, offering corporate customers a wider selection of products.
Palm and Research In Motion rose as Credit Suisse anticipates there is potential for 1.5 billion smart phones worldwide by 2015 and U.S. regulators are mulling ways to expand the reach of broadband services.
In fact, Credit Suisse upgraded its rating on RIMM and Motorola this week, saying the under-served corporate market is likely to boost RIMM and that Motorola will benefit from better-than-expected sales and spending discipline.
And there are rumors that AT&T may be looking to buy Leap Wireless .
Meanwhile, Nokia is taking another shot at Apple , offering an $820 laptop in addition to its plans to launch a smartphone line.
Dow energy components ExxonMobil and Chevron ended lower as oil prices finished the day flat at $68.05 a barrel despite a report that showed crude supplies declined by 400,000 barrels last week.
BP rose more than 4 percent after the oil company announces what it terms a "giant" oil discovery in the Gulf of Mexico. ConocoPhillips is also a partner in that project.
Gold stocks soared as one analyst pointed out: September may be bad for stocks but it's typically good for gold. Plus, the Indian wedding season is coming up, when a lot of people will be buying gold.
"Investors are turning to gold as a hedge" against financial malady, Chad Morganlander, a portfolio manager at Stifel, Nicolaus, told Reuters.
Randgold Resources and Royal Gold were up about 10 percent, while Jaguar Mining shot up more than 15 percent.
Banks finished mostly lower, including SunTrust and Regions Financial , as the sector continued to smart from rampant rumors on Tuesday — that appeared to be unfounded — that another bank was going down.
Bank of Americaand JPMorgan were among the biggest drags on the Dow.
Wells Fargo finished lower even as the bank said it won't need to raise more money to pay back the government bailout loan.
Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac both tumbled more than 10 percent.
Citigroup, however, eked out a 0.4-percent gain.
Boeing shares slipped as the aerospace giant and rival Airbus will find out this week which one won what may just be the biggest commercial trade dispute in modern history.
Pfizer shares fell after the company agreed to pay a $2.3 billion to settle civil charges over the marketing of its withdrawn pain medication Bextra and other drugs.
Volume was light, with 1.38 billion shares changing hands on the New York Stock Exchange. Decliners outpaced advancers, 3 to 2.
Still to Come:
THURSDAY: Chain-store sales; weekly jobless claims; ISM services index
FRIDAY: August jobs report
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