Stocks ended down, after trading in a narrow range throughout much of the session Tuesday, as investors took a breather from a three-day rally amid rising oil prices and ongoing turmoil in Libya and the Middle East.
The Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 17.90 points, or 0.15 percent, to close at 12,018.63 after trading within a 50-point range all session, and following Monday's rally. The blue-chip index had risen 3.6 percent over the previous three sessions, after falling 4.3 percent from its Feb. 18, 2011 high.
Among Dow components, Bank of America and General Electric fell, while Verizon and American Express gained.
The S&P 500 fell 4.61 points or 0.36 percent, to close at 1,293.77, while the Nasdaq fell 8.22 points, or 0.3 percent, to close at 2,683.87.
The CBOE Volatility Index, widely considered the best gauge of fear in the market, fell near 20.
Among the S&P 500's key sectors, industrials and consumer discretionary fell, while telecom and utilities gained.
Investors appeared to be taking a pause Tuesday after three consecutive sessions of strong gains reversed a good portion of the losses sustained in the wake of the multiple disasters in Japan.
"I would say the impressive part of that is we handled a lot of very negative news, very unexpected, uncertain news, and saw a relatively minor pullback as a consequence," said Marc Pado, U.S. market strategist and technical analyst at Cantor Fitzgerald.
One reason the market didn't continue to plunge is earnings season is just around the corner, and stocks tend to get a lift before earnings are released, Pado said.
"I think as the market moves to digest all the negative news, what’s new is that there’s positive news around the corner that people have been anticipating," he said.
Pado also pointed to strength in companies such as Caterpillar or Boeing , which are benefiting from capital equipment expenditures triggered by the tax depreciation allowance. His expectation is the market could stall this week, with the S&P 500 trading around 1,300, but that the bull market run will be recharged, and the broad market index could reach 1,385 in the next couple of months.
Oil prices closed higher Tuesday amid unrest in Yemen and after a continuing strikes in Libyaraised fears supplies would be disrupted. London Brent crude closed above $115 a barrel, while U.S. light sweet crude closed at $104 a barrel.
Gold, meanwhile, gained Tuesday to close at $1,427.50 an ounce,while the dollar rose slightly against a basket of currencies.