Stocks ended modestly lower after an unexpected rise in initial jobless claims and disappointing July retail sales, as the market awaited the critical July employment report.
The S&P 500 fell 1.43 points, or 0.13 percent to 1125.81, while theNasdaqslipped 10.51 points, or 0.46 percent, to 2293.06. The CBOE volatility index, widely considered the best gauge of fear in the market, rose above 22.
American Express and Bank of Americawere among the biggest drags on the Dow, while Caterpillar was among the handful of gainers.
Technology, financials and consumer staples were lower, while the telecom and consumer discretionary sectors were the leaders.
In the day's economic news: First-time claims for unemployment benefits rose by 19,000 last week to 479,000, the highest since early April. Economists had expected claims to drop by 2,000.
The jobless-claims data comes ahead of the government's July jobs report, due out on Friday. Analysts expect to see that nonfarm payrolls shed 65,000 jobs, mostly due to a dropoff in government workers, according to the latest survey from Reuters. The private sector is expected to have added 90,000 jobs.
Despite today's disappointing jobless claims numbers, some strategists were hopeful ahead of Friday's jobs report.
"We make the mistake of thinking that the weekly jobless numbers are going to correlate tightly to the monthly changes in nonfarm payroll numbers and that's a big mistake," said Art Hogan, director of global equity product at Jefferies. "I think there's a possibility that we see an in-line number to an upside surprise in terms of numbers of jobs created...especially after the positive ADP number we got earlier in the week."
An independent report from ADP Employment Services earlier this week said the private sector added 43,000 jobs in July.
Retail sales were sluggishin July, with many chains falling short of expectations and others reporting that modest improvements in sales from last summer's anemic levels were largely due to discounts and sales promotions. With many teens still unemployed, teen chains like The Buckle and Hot Topic took a hit.
But investors were still betting on consumer discretionary, which was among the day's best-performing sectors. Shares of Macy's , Kohl's, Gap and Target were all higher. But JCPenney and Aeropostale fell.
With more consumers holding back and personal savings rates inching up, some strategists believe the money will eventually flow into the retail sector as people start opening up their wallets throughout the year.
"There are some opportunities in the sector if you do your homework," said Brian Sozzi, research analyst at Wall Street Strategies. "But I think you have to play to the downside as well because you're going to see some surprises across the board."