Stocks fell slightly on Wednesday as oil prices gained amid continuing unrest in the Middle East and North Africa.
The Dow Jones Industrial Average fell less than 10 points after gaining 178 points on Monday. The blue-chip index had risen 3.6 percent over the previous three sessions, after falling 4.3 percent from its Feb. 18, 2011 high.
Among Dow components, Alcoa and Intel fell, while Merck and Boeing gained.
The S&P 500 and the Nasdaq both declined. The CBOE Volatility Index, widely considered the best gauge of fear in the market, fell slightly to nearly 20.
Among the S&P 500's key sectors, health care and telecom gained, while industrials and materials fell.
Investors appeared to be taking a breather Tuesday after three consecutive sessions of strong gains reversed a good portion of the losses sustained in the wake of the multiple disasters in Japan.
"I would say the impressive part of that is we handled a lot of very negative news, very unexpected, uncertain news, and saw a relatively minor pullback as a consequence," said Marc Pado, U.S. market strategist and technical analyst at Cantor Fitzgerald.
One reason the market didn't continue to plunge is earnings season is just around the corner, and stocks tend to get a lift before earnings are released, Pado said.
"I think as the market moves to digest all the negative news, what’s new is that there’s positive news around the corner that people have been anticipating," he said.
Pado also pointed to strength in companies such as Caterpillar or Boeing , which are benefiting from capital equipment expenditures triggered by the tax depreciation allowance. His expectation is the market could stall this week, with the S&P 500 trading around 1,300, but that the bull market run will be recharged, and the broad market index could reach 1,385 in the next couple of months.
Oil prices moved higher amid unrest in Yemen and after a third night of air strikes on the Libyan capitalTripoli.
London Brent crude rose above $115 a barrel, while U.S. light sweet crude rose above $104 a barrel.
“Oil isn’t going down anytime soon," Rachel Ziemba, senior research analyst for Roubini Global Economics (RGE), told CNBC. “The question is, when it spikes to 150 (dollars), do people expect it to stay there? What if it averages 115-120 (dollars) a barrel?.”
RGE predicts that at that point the global economy would be spending almost 6 percent of GDP on oil. “In the past that has always preceded recession. We’re already starting to see a slowing global growth,” she said.