Stocks Fall Amid Global Tensions; Banks Skid

Stocks fell Wednesday in another quiet session amid a plunge in new home sales, news of a bus explosion in Jerusalem, and as the crisis at the tsunami-hit nuclear power plant north of Tokyo continued.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average fell more than 10 points after falling slightly on Tuesday following three days of strong gains.

Among Dow components, Bank of America , WalMart and DuPont slipped, while Hewlett-Packard and Alcoa gained.

The S&P 500 and the Nasdaq also skidded. The CBOE Volatility Index, widely considered the best gauge of fear in the market, fell below 20.

Most key S&P 500 sectors fell, led by financials, health care and utilities, while materials rose.

An explosion near a bus in downtown Jerusalemon Wednesday caused dozens of casualties, according to police, Reuters reported.Japan estimated the direct damage from the earthquake and tsunami to be 16-25 trillion yen ($185-308 billion), making it the costliest natural disaster ever.

The United States became the first nation to block some food importsfrom Japan and Japanese authorities advised against allowing infants to drink tap water in Tokyo due to raised radiation levels.

In Europe, minutes from the Bank of England’s latest meeting published Wednesday morning showed the Bank’s Monetary Policy Committee remained split over the need to hike rates.

Despite the events in Japan, a rate hike in May looks likely, analysts said, particularly in light of soaring inflation. The European Central Bank has also hinted it may raise rates in the near future.

Traders will also be watching for oil inventory data from the government at 10:30 a.m. as the conflict in Libya and tensions in Yemen and Syria continue to drive prices higher. Oil pricesrose as tensions in the Middle East and North Africa continued. London Brent crude traded above $115 a barrel, while U.S. light sweet crude traded above $104 a barrel.

Crude oil inventories rose by 2.1 million barrels, according to the Department of Energy. Gasoline inventories fell by 5.3 million.

In corporate news, Bank of America fell after news the Federal Reserve didn't give the banking giantthe go-ahead to raise its dividend. The bank said it will seek permission to provide a modest dividend in the second half of 2011.

General Mills slumped after the maker of Wheaties and Green Giant foods said commodities inflation would affect revenuesthis year and next, and delivered a disappointing report on fiscal third-quarter domestic sales.

Adobe Systems declined after reducing its revenue forecast for Japan by one third.

And Toyota slumped as it said the disaster in Japan will delay the Japan launch of two new Prius models due to production disruptions.

Motricity , which provides a technology for non-smartphones to surf the Internet, continued to rise in after-market trading. (Read more: Cramer: This Tech Stock Is 'Misunderstood.')

New home sales sank 16.9 percent in February to a seasonally adjusted annual unit rate of 250,000, the lowest since records of sales have been kept. January sales were at an upwardly revised 301,000-unit pace. Economists surveyed by Reuters had expected new sales would rise to an annual rate of 290,000 from the previously reported 284,000 in January.

Home builders slumped on the news, with Hovananian , Toll Brothers and KB Homes among those taking the biggest hit.

Also on the economic front, the Mortgage Bankers Association'sseasonally adjusted index of mortgage application activity rose 2.7 percent for the week ended March 18.

Also, investors will keep a close eye on comments by U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, who speaks to the Independent Community Bankers of America convention at 12 p.m.

Egypt’s stock market reopened Wednesday morning after a two-month suspension put in place when stocks plunged as a revolution shook the country. Trading was halted just moments after the bourse reopenedwhen circuit breakers kicked in, but later resumed, with further heavy selling by foreign investors.

Europe’s sovereign debt crisis could add to uncertainty Wednesday as Portugal’s parliament votes on the government’s austerity measures.

The vote could spell the collapse of the government and further trouble for the debt-battered country.

On Tap This Week:

WEDNESDAY: Caterpillar analyst meeting; annual meetings for Disney, HP and Starbucks; new home sales, oil inventories.
THURSDAY: EU summit; durable goods, jobless claims, natural gas inventories, 10-year TIPS auction, money supply; before-the-bell earnings from Best Buy and ConAgra; after-the-bell earnings from Oracle, Research in Motion.
FRIDAY: USDA food prices outlook; GDP revision, corporate profits, and consumer sentiment.

More on