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U.S. stocks closed lower on Monday, ending three consecutive days of gains as investors remained cautious ahead of earnings season. (Tweet This)

"There's not a single catalyst," said Art Hogan, chief market strategist at Wunderlich Securities. "I think we have pre-game jitters ahead of earnings reports."

First quarter earnings season officially kicks off on Tuesday with blue chips JPMorgan Chase reporting before the bell and Intel after the close. Wells Fargo also reports before the open.

"It will be very interesting to listen to the companies on where they see the economy and how they are handling the current situation," said Paul Nolte, portfolio manager at Kingsview Asset Management.

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Kim Forrest, senior equity analyst at Fort Pitt Capital, is watching Tuesday's retail sales and JPMorgan earnings.

"I don't think any of the economic data points to a recession but the banks would be the first to show if the people they lend to—especially in the credit card sector—are seeing signs of pressure," she said.

Under pressure from the strong dollar and low oil prices, corporate profit expectations are significantly negative for the first time in six years, with Thomson Reuters reporting a likely 2.9 percent drop in S&P 500 net income.

"We really have a bias towards financials this week in terms of earnings reporting," Hogan said. "Everyone tries to extrapolate what JPMorgan means for P&G."

"Last week was really driven by the strong energy trade and M&A," he said.

General Electric closed down 3 percent, pressuring the Dow and S&P 500 industrials. The stock surged 10.8 percent on Friday after the announced restructuring of GE Capital and stock buybacks. The appliance and industrial products manufacturer reports quarterly earnings before the bell on Friday.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average gave up morning gains to close down 80.61 points, or 0.45 percent, at 17,977.04, with JPMorgan Chase ending 0.60 percent higher to lead five blue chip advancers and GE the greatest laggard.

The also lost early gains to closed down 9.63 points, or 0.46 percent, at 2,092.43, with industrials the greatest of 9 declining sectors and financials the only advancer.

The Nasdaq dipped in and out of negative territory before closing down 7.73 points, or 0.15 percent, at 4,988.25, despite the iShares Nasdaq Biotechnology ETF (IBB) holding modest gains of 0.24 percent.

The Russell 2000 edged higher but fell short of setting a record.

"Today really ... is just a waiting game," said Peter Boockvar, chief market analyst at The Lindsey Group. Stocks are moving "a little bit (on) the dollar and oil. That's going to help us but I'm not sure which way."

The U.S. dollar rose against major world currencies, with the euro lower below $1.06. Oil pared gains with crude settling up 27 cents at $51.91 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange.

WTI crude oil 3-month daily performance

The United States ended the month of March with a , up 43 percent from the same period last year, the U.S. Treasury Department said on Monday.

U.S. Treasury yields traded just below recent highs, with the 10-year Treasury note yield near 1.93 percent. The was 0.52 percent.

"Technically speaking the market is in pretty good shape. That could change once earnings begin to flow in," said Peter Cardillo, chief market economist at Rockwell Global Capital.

Earlier, the major indices attempted to hold above key levels, with the S&P 500 briefly above 2,100, the Nasdaq near 5,000 and the Dow Jones industrial average mostly trading above 18,000.

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BTIG Chief Technical Strategist Katie Stockton noted intraday resistance levels for the S&P 500 of 2,107 to 2,109.

Despite some expectations of a short-term pullback, Stockton said in a morning report that "we expect the SPX to follow the leaders to a new all-time high, with the belief that earnings season is likely to yield more breakouts than breakdowns among individual stocks."

S&P and Nasdaq breakouts above resistance are significant indicators for the overall market trend, said JJ Kinahan, chief strategist at TD Ameritrade. "If we do get financials going and tech going the market can really drive higher," he said.

The CBOE Volatility Index (VIX), widely considered the best gauge of fear in the market, traded above 14.

Decliners were a step ahead of advancers on the New York Stock Exchange, with an exchange volume of 662 million and a composite volume of 2.9 billion in the close.

Gold futures settled down $5.30 to $1,199.30 an ounce.

Major U.S. Indexes

Chinese equities continued to advance, closing at 7-year highs on Monday, despite a greater-than-expected decline in Chinese exports. The negative data weighed on mining stocks, sending European stocks lower to close mixed after a week of strong gains.

Greece remained an issue, with the Financial Times reporting that in case debt talks with its international creditors fail before the month's end.

U.S. stocks closed higher on Friday, marking a three-day rally with the Dow topping 18,000 for the first time in April.

"I think the markets are really geared to company-specific news (this week and next)," Kingsview's Nolte said. "We may not see too much movement in the underlying index because of them."

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Qualcomm closed down 0.62 percent following news that activist investor Jana Partners has held "constructive discussions" with the tech firm about potentially spinning off its chip unit from its patent-licensing business.

Apple ended mildly lower following news that the Apple Watch customers will have to wait longer than expected for delivery. The iPhone maker pushed back shipping times to May and June after the wearable saw a surge in orders. A Bank of America report estimates Apple will ship about four million Apple Watches during the June quarter.

Sears closed 0.72 percent higher after it struck a 50/50 joint venture deal with Simon Property, designed to unlock the real estate value in the 10 properties it will contribute to the venture. The news follows a similar deal with another mall operator, General Growth Properties, earlier this month.

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Pandora closed 0.71 percent higher after a Wall Street Journal report said rival Spotify was near a deal to raise $400 million in a round that values it at $8.4 billion.

CNBC's Patti Domm and Peter Schacknow contributed to this report.

On tap this week:


Earnings: JP Morgan Chase, Wells Fargo, Johnson & Johnson, Intel, CSX, Linear Tech, JB Hunt Transportation, Fastenal

7:30 a.m.: NFIB small business survey

8:30 a.m.: Retail sales

8:30 a.m.: PPI

10:00 a.m.: Business inventories

8:00 p.m.: Minneapolis Fed President Narayana Kocherlakota


Earnings: Bank of America, US Bancorp, Burberry, Charles Schwab, PNC Financial, Netflix, SanDisk, Universal Forest Products, Progressive, ASML Holdings

8:30 a.m.: Empire State survey

9:00 a.m.: St. Louis Fed President James Bullard

9:15 a.m.: Industrial production

10:00 a.m.: NAHB survey

10:40 a.m.: Fed Vice Chairman Stanley Fischer, moderating IMF panel

2:00 p.m.: Beige Book

4:00 p.m.: TIC data


Earnings: BlackRock, Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, Blackstone, American Express, Schlumberger, Celanese, Crown Holdings, UnitedHealth, Taiwan Semiconductor, Philip Morris, First Republic Bank, KeyCorp, Mattel, Sherwin-Williams, Sonoco Products, PPG Industries, WW Grainger

8:30 a.m.: Initial claims

8:30 a.m.: Housing starts

10:00 a.m.: Philadelphia Fed survey

1:00 p.m.: Atlanta Fed President Dennis Lockhart

1:10 p.m.: Cleveland Fed President Loretta Mester

1:30 p.m.: Boston Fed President Eric Rosengren

3:00 p.m.: Fed Vice Chairman Fischer on inflation at IMF spring meeting


Earnings: GE, Honeywell, Synchrony Financial, Comerica

8:30 a.m.: CPI

10:00 a.m.: Consumer sentiment

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