U.S. stocks closed lower on Wednesday as investors weighed softness in economic data ahead of Friday's important jobs report.
"The economic news for the last few months has been really tepid and trending downwards," said Adrian Day of Adrian Day Asset Management. "I think we're going to see weaker earnings in the coming period. When you add it all together the next earnings season is going to be quite weak and a potential knock to the market."
Stocks pared early morning losses but held moderate declines in the close. The Dow Jones industrial average fell as much as 191 points soon after the open before halving losses, with Wal-Mart leading decliners.
"The economic data was what pushed markets down to start with," said Paul Nolte, portfolio manager at Kingsview Asset Management. He noted that investors likely renewed buying after realizing weak reports would tend to keep the Federal Reserve from raising rates soon.
"At some point bad news will be bad news," he said, "but right now the day of reckoning will be pushed out."
"Based on (the Fed's) comments and data I don't think they'll be aggressively advancing that Fed funds rate," said Tim Dreiling, senior portfolio manager at U.S. Bank Wealth Management. "This has to be one of the most telegraphed Fed moves ever. They've spent an enormous amount of time prepping us for something. But again we're going to watch the data."
The other major indices closed down about 0.40 percent. The Nasdaq composite dipped below its 50-day moving average of 4,866.25 in intraday trade as biotechs declined.
The iShares Nasdaq biotechnology ETF (IBB) closed down about 1 percent.
Art Hogan, chief market strategist at Wunderlich Securities, pointed out that the Nasdaq is the only major index significantly positive for the year, making it and its leading biotech sector a target for profit-taking in absence of news.
"We've got a week where we unfortunately need a significant catalyst to move us one way or the other," he said.
Higher oil prices and a Deutsche Bank downgrade pressured airline stocks, briefly sending the Dow transports more than 1 percent lower to below its 200-day moving average of 8,660.87. The energy sector gained about 0.20 percent as one of the few advancers in the S&P 500.
"Most important is the weaker economic news that we got," said Peter Cardillo, chief market economist at Rockwell Global Capital. "Obviously supporting the fact that we're headed to a very poor or very ugly earnings season in the first quarter."
He also pointed to overall weakness in global economic data as weighing on U.S. profits. China's Purchasing Managers' Index (PMI) was still tepid despite rising to 50.1 in March from February's 49.9. The reading was a touch above the 50-mark that that separates growth from contraction.
"We can't sustain 3 to 3.5 percent without the help of Asia and Europe," Cardillo said.
"It's hard to see how the U.S. is going to raise rates in the face of global weakness," Kingsview's Nolte said. "We only raise rates because we can and it could be a 'one and done.'"
Futures continued to point mildly lower after the morning's ADP employment report for March showed an increase of 189,000 in monthly private payrolls, below expectations of a modest rise to around 225,000.
"It was a little weaker than I would have liked to see and what we expected. Certainly sets up for Friday's number to disappoint," said Mark Luschini, chief investment strategist at Janney Montgomery Scott. "When you have full valuations the market demands good news."
The U.S. 10-year Treasury yield extended declines to trade as low as 1.85 percent. The U.S. dollar traded flat with the euro holding under $1.08.
The ISM for March posted 51.5, the weakest level on this indicator since last May. Construction spending fell 0.1 percent in February, for a second straight month of decline.
Growth in the U.S. manufacturing sector rose to a five-month high in March as output and employment gained. Markit said its final U.S. Manufacturing Purchasing Managers' Index rose to 55.7 in March from 55.1 in February.
"The market is going to be in a trading range until Friday's number and we start earnings season," said Peter Boockvar, chief market analyst at The Lindsey Group. He noted that the last two days' swings have kept the S&P 500 within the 2,040 and 2,120 range.
"If we break below (the 2,035 or 2,040) level perhaps the decline we've seen over the last few days could worsen before we see employment data," Cardillo said.