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U.S. stocks gave up attempts at gains to close lower Wednesday, shaking off an earlier boost from news of a potential merger, as investors eyed a renewed decline in oil prices. (Tweet This)
The Dow Jones industrial average closed about 75 points lower. Earlier, the index briefly tumbled 150 points after adding nearly 200 points, with DuPont contributing most to gains. Chevron and Exxon Mobil were also among the top advancers, boosted by initial gains in oil prices. Apple was the greatest weight on the index.
The Nasdaq composite underperformed, ending about 1.5 percent lower, as Apple fell more than 2 percent to below its 50-day moving average and biotech stocks declined after standing out as advancers Tuesday.
"Oil is calling the tune, but selling is very, very broad. The financials are down and a whole variety of things," said Art Cashin, UBS director of floor operations at the NYSE. He noted stocks would be much lower without the support from dealmaking talks between Dow Chemical and DuPont, which jumped nearly 11.9 percent for its best day ever.
Cashin added that a key level for the S&P 500 is 2,042, the low hit after European Central Bank President Mario Draghi's decision on monetary policy disappointed investors Thursday.
The index struggled to hold that level and briefly fell below in early afternoon trade. The S&P 500 also closed in negative territory for 2015 as tech stocks lagged, followed by more than 1 percent declines in consumer discretionary and financials.
Oil turned lower after spiking around the U.S. Energy Information Administration report, which showed weekly crude inventories declined. However, Reuters noted the report also said distillate inventories jumped by 5 million barrels, double the forecast and the sharpest rise since January, while demand for the fuels fell to its lowest level seasonally since 1998.
"I think we're getting into this area where you've got a lot of moving parts over the last three or four days that the market is struggling to interpret," said Daniel Deming, managing director at KKM Financial. "The environment we find ourselves in could definitely lead us to more volatility in the marketplace than people anticipated."
The euro climbed above $1.10 to near its 200-day moving average of $1.1031, while the U.S. dollar index traded more than 1 percent lower around 97.40.
"I think the most noteworthy thing is the weakening of the U.S. dollar. The euro is almost at $1.10. That's keeping a lid on Europe," Peter Boockvar, chief market analyst at The Lindsey Group, said of morning trade. He noted the market is focused on "Draghi's action, not his words on Friday."
U.S. stocks closed sharply lower last Thursday after Draghi disappointed markets and the euro surged to above $1.09 for its largest one-day gain against the dollar since March 2009. The euro has continued to hold near those levels despite Draghi's remarks Friday that "there is no particular limit to how we can deploy any of our tools."
European stocks failed to hold attempts at gains Wednesday, with the STOXX Europe 600 and German DAX ending nearly half a percent lower or more.
U.S. stocks came well off session highs to trade sharply lower midday as oil turned negative and tech stocks lagged.
"I think the market is still temporarily trying to unwind. I think there are a lot of questions as far as investors are concerned. How is the market going to react (to the Fed)?" said John Caruso, senior market strategist at RJO Futures.
Shares of Dow Chemical and DuPont both jumped more than 10 percent after news the two chemical giants are expected to announce a merger by Thursday. The deal was first reported by The Wall Street Journal late Tuesday and will likely be followed by a separation into businesses focusing on agricultural, materials services, and specialty products operations.
"They're (mostly likely) going to be doing a spinoff and that could be a catalyst for the stock because historically our studies show the acquirer hasn't done that well," said Jonathan Morgan, deals analyst at The Edge Consulting Group.
"The big story of the day is Dow, DuPont and Yahoo not going through spinoff. That's not going to move the market (much). The overarching effect of this long slide in commodity prices is Kinder Morgan," said Art Hogan, chief market strategist at Wunderlich Securities.
Pipeline operator Kinder Morgan late Tuesday cut its quarterly dividend 75 percent to 12.5 cents a share.
Energy and materials pared gains but continued to lead S&P advancers after briefly gaining 3 percent and 4 percent each, respectively.
The gains in energy stocks were likely due to short covering, said Mike Arone, chief investment strategist for the intermediary business, State Street Global Advisors. "I don't anticipate that's net long oil positions."
Howard Silverblatt, senior index analyst at S&P Dow Jones Indices, noted that between the close of Dec. 1 and Dec. 8, the energy sector lost about 10.4 percent and the S&P 500 fell nearly 1.9 percent. Ex-energy, the S&P 500 is down about 1.2 percent during that time, he said.
The major U.S. averages have closed lower every day for the week so far, on track for a loss of about 2 percent or more for the week.
No major economic news is due until retail sales and the producer price index Friday. Key for markets is the Federal Reserve's meeting next week when the central bank could raise short-term interest rates for the first time in nearly a decade.
"The SPX continues to back-and-fill near its 200-day moving average, getting 'wound up' in a triangle pattern ahead of next week's Fed meeting. This means we should expect volatility to increase in the days ahead with a strong directional bias, unlike the fickle price action of late," BTIG Chief Technical Strategist Katie Stockton said in a note. She added that her indicators support an upward breakout and she expects "a year-end rally as positive seasonal influences take hold."
In data reports Wednesday, as businesses stepped up efforts to reduce the stockpile of unsold merchandise, suggesting inventories would again be a drag on growth in the fourth quarter, Reuters said.
Economists polled by Reuters had forecast wholesale inventories ticking up 0.1 percent in October.
The dollar shed 1 percent against the yen, pushing it below 122 yen for the first time since Nov. 6. "A close below (the yen's 100 day moving average) could signal a test of recent trend-line support at 120.01, with a break below 120 likely to grab MAJOR headlines," Robert Sinche, global strategist at Amherst Pierpont Securities, said in a note.
In other corporate news, copper and gold producer Freeport-McMoran said it will suspend its common stock dividend, further revise its oil and gas capital spending plans, and curtail copper production "in response to market conditions." The stock closed up 3.7 percent.
Yahoo confirmed Wednesday it will not spin off its stake in Alibaba. Sources told CNBC late Tuesday that Yahoo would not move forward with the plan. The Internal Revenue Service earlier this year declined to rule on whether the transaction would be tax-free. Shares of Yahoo closed down about 1.3 percent.
The S&P 500 closed down 15.97 points, or 0.77 percent, at 2,047.62, with information technology leading seven sectors lower and materials leading advancers.
The Nasdaq composite closed down 75.38 points, or 1.48 percent, at 5,022.87.
The CBOE Volatility Index (VIX), widely considered the best gauge of fear in the market, traded near 19.5. The VIX briefly topped 20 in intraday trade for the first time since Nov. 16.
About three stocks declined for every two advancers on the New York Stock Exchange, with an exchange volume of 1.0 billion and a composite volume of nearly 4.4 billion.
Gold futures for February delivery settled up $1.20 to $1,076.50 an ounce.
—CNBC's Patti Domm and Reuters contributed to this report.
On tap this week:
8:30 a.m. Initial claims; import prices
10:30 a.m.: Natural gas inventories
1 p.m.: 30-year bond auction
2 p.m.: Federal budget
4:30 p.m.: Fed balance sheet/money supply
8:30 a.m. Retail sales; PPI
10 a.m.: Consumer sentiment; business inventories
1 p.m.: Rig count
*Planner subject to change.
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