A warning from hotel operator Marriott International hurt hotel and other consumer shares, amid expectations of other negative corporate earnings pre-announcements.
Corporations now have several excuses that seem to resonate on Wall Street, from bad weather in January to the Middle East to the Japanese earthquake impacting the supply chain or sentiment, said Adam Parker, chief U.S. equity strategist at Morgan Stanley, in a client note.
Marriott International shares fell 6.3 percent to $35.30.
Stocks spent most of the day in positive territory, with the S&P 500 hitting a session high near 1,320 for a second straight session, driven by strength in the telecommunications sector and consumer spending data.
Japan's natural disasters and nuclear crisis along with civil unrest in the Middle East and Libya have increased market volatility in recent weeks.
The Dow Jones industrial average <.DJI> lost 22.71 points, or 0.19 percent, to 12,197.88. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index <.SPX> fell 3.61 points, or 0.27 percent, to 1,310.19. The Nasdaq Composite Index <.IXIC> fell 12.38 points, or 0.45 percent, to 2,730.68.
Analysts at Instinet in New York said a battle over the territory just beyond the day's highs was likely to continue in the upcoming sessions.
Over the very near term ... the odds point toward another short-term firefight in the 1,320-1,330 area, Instinet's note said.
That said, the S&P 500 has a good chance of making a new 2011 high over the next month or two, according to the Instinet client note, as it is supported by a recent 7 percent pullback and a plunge in a widely followed risk gauge <.VIX>.
The S&P telecom index <.GSPL> rose 1.4 percent after a brokerage upgraded a number of companies, including Dow components AT&T Inc and Verizon Communications Inc .
AT&T rose 1.8 percent to $29.36 and Verizon gained 1.2 percent to $37.75, curbing losses in the blue-chip index.
About 5.9 billion shares traded on the New York Stock Exchange, NYSE Amex and Nasdaq -- the lowest volume in 2011. Last Tuesday's 6.54 billion was the lowest until Monday.
From the point of view of a purchaser, to make a commitment here, you have to think margins will keep expanding and the Fed will stay easing, said Subodh Kumar, chief investment strategist at Subodh Kumar & Associates in Toronto.
He said light volumes reflect investors' uncertainty on those issues.
U.S. consumer spending rose slightly more than forecast in February, while inflation accelerated at its fastest pace since June 2009.
Eastman Kodak Co , up 5.3 percent at $3.58, was the NYSE's third-most active stock after a U.S. trade panel agreed last week to review a case that could bring the struggling photography company hundreds of millions of dollars in royalties.
EBay Inc plans to buy e-commerce service provider GSI Commerce for nearly $2 billion to build up its online marketplaces as it ramps up its battle with Amazon.com Inc .
GSI shares surged 50.7 percent to $29.20 in Nasdaq trading while eBay shares lost 4.3 percent to $30.34 and Amazon slid nearly 1 percent to $169.35.
On Wall Street's worry front: Highly radioactive water has leaked from a reactor at Japan's crippled nuclear complex, the plant's operator said, while environmental group Greenpeace said it had detected high levels of radiation outside an exclusion zone, adding to mounting problems in Japan's battle to contain the world's worst atomic crisis since Chernobyl.
Declining stocks outnumbered advancing ones on the NYSE by 1,765 to 1,214, while on the Nasdaq, about three stocks fell for every two that rose.
(Reporting by Rodrigo Campos; Editing by Jan Paschal)