U.S. stocks closed lower Thursday, amid a pullback in oil prices from multi-month highs and a decline in global benchmark yields. The Dow and S&P ended three-straight days of gains.
"I think we're back to trading crude oil with a lack of other things to trade," said JJ Kinahan, chief strategist at TD Ameritrade.
U.S. crude oil futures snapped a three-day win streak to settle down 67 cents, or 1.31 percent, at $50.56 a barrel. WTI closed above $51 at its highest since July on Wednesday.
"Oil stabilizing around $50 is really good for the markets. ... That helps stabilize emerging markets and is maybe a commentary on growth that recently demand is picking up," said Jeff Kravetz of the Private Client Reserve at U.S. Bank.
"The picture in the U.S. is pretty good and I think that's what's driving capital and there's plenty of liquidity out there looking for returns," he said.
The major U.S. indexes closed well off session lows Thursday, on pace to end the week higher after recent gains. On Wednesday, the Dow Jones industrial average closed above the psychologically key 18,000 level for the first time since April and the S&P 500 ended at its highest since July.
"I don't think (the decline in stocks) is anything more than maybe a bit of profit-taking," said Robert Pavlik, chief market strategist at Boston Private Wealth.
The S&P 500 remained within 1 percent of its 52-week intraday high, while the Dow Jones industrial average closed below the psychologically key 18,000 level but was about 1.1 percent below its 52-week intraday high. Utilities hit a fresh 52-week intraday high as the top advancer, while financials lagged.
"Whoever can take control into (Friday's) close, that's who holds the advantage going into the Fed's (meeting next) Wednesday," said John Caruso, senior market strategist at RJO Futures. "Right now I'm looking at the market as very confused and very lost."
The Dow transports and Russell 2000 underperformed the Dow and S&P. Financials closed 0.77 percent lower as the greatest S&P decliner, with the Bank (KBE) and Regional Bank (KRE) ETFs both closing more than 1.3 percent lower.
"I think the theme of the day would be the feeling we've got a big problem in the world as far as growth goes," said Peter Coleman, head trader at Convergex.
The German 10-year bund yield hit a fresh all-time low of 0.023 percent, according to Reuters Tradweb data. The U.S. 10-year Treasury yield hovered just above its lows for the year so far, last trading near 1.68 percent, while the 2-year yield traded near 0.77 percent, after hitting its lowest since May 16.
"It's not just 'flight to quality.' It's not just 'the Fed's dead.' There are some global influences at work," said Bryce Doty, senior fixed income manager with Sit Investment Associates.
The Treasury Department auctioned $12 billion in 30-year bonds at a high yield of 2.475 percent. The bid-to-cover ratio, an indicator of demand, was above a recent average at 2.42, while the share of indirect bidders was also above average.
Traders also noted some pressure on stocks from an overnight Wall Street Journal report, citing sources, that billionaire investor George Soros recently directed a series of "big, bearish investments" of purchases in gold and gold miner shares after a long break from trading.
"I don't think things are that bad. It's just there's no strong growth, but there's no bust either," said Ilya Feygin, managing director and senior strategist at WallachBeth Capital.
"In the U.S. market, really for it to move higher, you need strength in energy and financials. Unfortunately, both of them are kind of stretched right now," he said.
The European Central Bank began its corporate bond purchase program Wednesday. In a speech Thursday, ECB President Mario Draghi warned of "lasting economic consequences" of years of weak output.
"They're aggressively buying corporate bonds over there. They're buying them for a reason because they're worried about the economy in Europe," Coleman said.
On the data front, weekly jobless claims fell to a seasonally adjusted 264,000. Wholesale inventories rose 0.6 percent in April.
The U.S. dollar index was about half a percent higher Thursday after touching its lowest since May 6 on Wednesday. The euro was near $1.132 and the yen near 107 yen against the greenback.
"What I think is really driving markets now is random moves based on flows ahead of the (U.K.) referendum," said Athanasios Vamvakidis, head of G10 FX strategy in Europe at Bank of America Merrill Lynch.
The U.K. is set to vote June 23, the week after the June Fed meeting, on whether to leave the European Union.
"Polls related to the referendum have become more inconclusive," Vamvakidis said.