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U.S. stocks closed lower Wednesday, the last trading day of the month, as investors digested falling oil prices and looked ahead to Friday's jobs report.
"We didn't get a lot of information today, and part of what we're trading on were the higher-than-expected oil inventories," said Kim Forrest, senior equity analyst at Fort Pitt Capital. "A lot of our clients are looking at September and are a little worried."
The S&P 500 fell about 0.25 percent, as energy and materials fell more than 1 percent and nearly 1 percent, respectively. Energy extended losses after after the Energy Information Administration said inventories rose by 2.3 million barrels last week. U.S. crude futures settled 3.56 percent lower at $44.70 a barrel.
"Basic materials, especially metals, are also tanking. Some of the areas that were giving support to the market are not doing well," said Chuck Self, CIO of iSectors.
The Nasdaq composite fell about 0.2 percent, as the iShares Nasdaq Biotechnology ETF (IBB) dropped 0.85 percent.
The S&P snapped a five-month winning streak, while the Dow ended a six-month winning streak. The Nasdaq rose 0.99 percent in August.
"I think there's a real trepidation surrounding Friday's number," said Quincy Krosby, market strategist at Prudential Financial. "The report we get for August is often weaker than expectations. You don't want a much weaker number that suggests the economy is weakening, but you don't want a much stronger report."
Private companies added 177,000 jobs in August, according to the latest report from ADP and Moody's Analytics. Economists polled by Reuters expected a gain of 175,000.
There was "nothing too surprising and there were no real implications for the number we're going to get Friday," said Scott Brown, chief economist at Raymond James.
Wall Street expects the August jobs report, due Friday at 8:30 a.m. ET, to show the U.S. economy added 180,000 jobs.
"The BLS numbers have been unusually volatile. You had that low number in May and then you had these two huge numbers in June and July," Raymond James' Brown said.
Other data released Wednesday included the Chicago PMI for August, which came in at 51.5. Pending home sales rose 1.3 percent in July.
Prudential's Krosby said the benchmark 10-year yield could see a sharp move higher "if there is an upside surprise" to Friday's number. On Wednesday, U.S. Treasurys traded lower, with the two-year note yield near 0.81 percent and the 10-year yield around 1.58 percent.
Friday's number could also change market expectations for a rate hike in September. According to the CME Group's FedWatch tool, expectations for a hike in September were 27 percent.
"I don't think it's prudent for them to raise rates before the election," said Randy Warren, chief investment officer at Warren Financial Service. "If they do raise rates in September, the market won't like that too much; and we'll probably see a swoon."
Raymond Jame's Brown said the U.S. central bank was leaning toward raising rates, "but policy will still be very accommodative."
"They are not going to react to Friday's number per se; they're going to look at the underlying trend," which is strong, Brown said.
Wednesday was the last trading day in August, a month in which stocks have held in a very tight range amid low volume and volatility. The S&P had not closed 1 percent higher or lower in any session in August entering Wednesday. In fact, the benchmark index posted its 37th straight session without doing so on Tuesday.
"Big picture, it's the week before Labor Day," said Zachary Karabell, head of global strategy at Envestnet. "I think we're in a static market with a general bias to the upside."
That said, the financials sector was leading the S&P for the month, advancing 3.57 percent. "We'll see if the financials continue to point to a rate hike," said Prudential's Krosby.
Fort Pitt Capital's Forrest said she'd be looking at companies in the industrial and consumer discretionary sectors. "I think a lot of these stocks are misunderstood," she said.
September has been a volatile month for stocks over the past decade. The last time the S&P ended September with a move less than 1 percent was 2005.
"Today and yesterday are not good for the market, but if we look at the past two months, we haven't broken down," said Adrian Day, CEO of Adrian Day Asset Management.
The U.S. dollar was flat against a basket of currencies, with the euro near $1.115 and the yen at 103.44.
The dropped 5.17 points, or 0.24 percent, to end at 2,170.95, with energy leading seven sectors lower and utilities the top advancer.
The Nasdaq closed 9.77 points, or 0.19 percent, to 5,213.22.
About nine stocks declined for every five advancers at the New York Stock Exchange, with an exchange volume of 1.084 billion and a composite volume of 3.681 billion at the close.
Gold futures for December delivery settled $5.10 lower at $1,311.40 per ounce.
On tap this week:
*Planner subject to change.
Earnings: Salesforce.com, Five Below, Shoe Carnival, Bob Evans, National Bank of Greece, Chico's
August vehicle sales
3:15 a.m. Boston Fed President Eric Rosengren, Chicago Fed President Charles Evans in Beijing
8:30 a.m. Initial claims; Productivity and costs
9:45 a.m. Manufacturing PMI
10 a.m. ISM manufacturing; Construction spending
12:25 p.m. Cleveland Fed President Loretta Mester
8:30 a.m. August Employment report
8:30 a.m. U.S. trade deficit
10 a.m. Factory orders
1 p.m. Richmond Fed President Jeffrey Lacker