Stocks continued to trade lower ahead of the close, failing to rebound entirely after another powerful earthquake in Japan renewed investor fears about supply disruptions and the ongoing nuclear crisis, and as oil jumped above $110 a barrel.
The Dow Jones Industrial Average fell more than 25 points, after tumbling nearly 100 points immediately after news of the quake. The blue-chip index, which rose slightly in the previous session to the highest level since June 2008,has fluctuated between a loss of 30 to 100 points since the quake was reported.
Among Dow components, General Electric and Cisco fell, while Boeing and Home Depot gained.
The S&P 500 and the Nasdaq both fell, but were up from session lows. The CBOE Volatility Index, widely considered the best gauge of fear in the market, rose above 17.
All key S&P 500 sectors declined, led by utilities, telecom and industrials.
Stocks continued to trade lower even after news that a tsunami warning was lifted, and the magnitude of the Japan quake was slightly less than first reported, because there was "no reason to come back," said Dan McMahon, director of equity trading at Raymond James.
"There are times to do nothing, and this may well be one of them," McMahon said.
At issue is trading continues to take place amid extremely thin volume, and there's no real catalyst to move stocks higher, he said.
"The general concensus among investors is they don't see a lot of opportunities," McMahon said. "They are of the mind that stocks are fairly valued, if not expensive."
The earthquake hitan area 60 miles east of Sendai and 90 miles from Fukushima, near the area devastated by a March 11 earthquake and tsunami. Of the hundreds of aftershocks that have followed the earlier quake, none have been 7.0 or stronger.
As earnings season is about to begin in full swing, the quake was a reminder to investors that they still don't know the full effects of the first quake, said Doreen Mogavero of Mogavero & Lee.
"There is a real reason to be concerned how the Japanese economy will effect the rest of the world," Mogavero said, adding that it's not surprising stock prices continue to drop. "Looking at rate hikes, inflation fears, oil crossing to $109...there are a myriad of things that would cause someone who has made a lot of money to take some off the table."
Before the quake hit, stocks were trading mixed in a narrow range, as the market took a pause after the Dow broke through to a new high on Thursday, and the S&P 500 broke above 1,333, a recent resistance point. Those gains have largely reflected investor sentiment that first quarter earnings will be good, according to Marc Pado, market strategist and technical analyst at Cantor Fitzgerald.
The S&P 500 reached a recent high of just under 1,344 on Feb. 18, and remains below that level in part because of the performance of bank stocks, which make up a significant percentage of the index, Pado said.