Leading the day's declines for a second day was the S&P health care sector, which fell 1.2 percent. Health care was the strongest sector in the first quarter, appreciating 6.2 percent.
Shares of automakers also declined after reporting March sales. Shares of General Motors (GM) were down 2 percent at $36.74 while Ford (F) was down 1.4 percent at $15.91 as sales fell at both companies.
%VIRTUAL-pullquote-People continue to have concerns about earnings weakness and economic weakness.%U.S. private employers added the smallest number of workers in more than a year in March and factory activity hit a near two-year low, fresh signs that economic growth slowed significantly in the first quarter.
The reports precede Friday's jobs data, the most widely watched indicator of the week, though that arrives on Good Friday when the stock market will be closed.
Investors also are anxious ahead of the start of first-quarter earnings, which strategists say could be hurt by the rising dollar's impact on multinational companies. Estimates for first-quarter earnings have fallen sharply since Jan. 1, Thomson Reuters data showed.
"People continue to have concerns about earnings weakness and economic weakness," said Stephen Massocca, chief investment officer at Wedbush Equity Management in San Francisco.
The Dow Jones industrial average (^DJI) fell 77.94 points, or 0.44 percent, to 17,698.18,the Standard & Poor's 500 index (^GSPC) lost 8.2 points, or 0.4 percent, to 2,059.69 and the Nasdaq composite (^IXIC) dropped 20.66 points, or 0.42 percent, to 4,880.23.
The S&P 500 and Nasdaq finished their ninth straight quarter of gains Tuesday, while the Dow dipped for the quarter.
Stocks Making Moves
Shares of Monsanto (MON) were up 3.9 percent at $116.96 and the stock was among the biggest positive influences on the S&P 500 after its results and forecast.
Energy shares also gained along with oil prices. ConocoPhillips (COP) was up 1.2 percent at $63.02.
NYSE advancing issues outnumbered declining ones 1,621 to 1,416, for a 1.14-to-1 ratio; on the Nasdaq, 1,449 issues fell and 1,280 advanced, for a 1.13-to-1 ratio favoring decliners.
The benchmark S&P 500 posted 7 new 52-week highs and 4 new lows; the Nasdaq composite recorded 76 new highs and 59 new lows.
About 6.9 billion shares changed hands on U.S. exchanges, above the 6.5 billion daily average for the last five trading sessions, according to BATS Global Markets.
What to watch Thursday:
CarMax (KMX) releases quarterly financial results before U.S. markets open.
At 8:30 a.m. Eastern time, the Labor Department releases weekly jobless claims, and the Commerce Department releases international trade data for February.
At 10 a.m., the Commerce Department releases factory orders for February, and Freddie Mac releases weekly mortgage rates.
8 Best Buys in April
Market Wrap: Stocks Fall on Economic Data; Automakers Slip
It may seem like a strange trio, but these three items are less expensive than normal this month. "April is soy awareness month," notes Teri Gault, CEO of The Grocery Game and expert in grocery savings and supermarket trends. "Because of this, many stores offer terrific sales on all sorts of soy items, so be sure to check your coupons and sales for specials." Ham is cheaper in the weeks leading up to Easter. Asparagus is cheaper because it's in season. Gault says to buy extra and freeze the green stuff for omelets, quiche and soup.
"For the best savings on Easter items, wait until after April 5 to stock up on holiday-related merchandise," advises Kendal Perez, savings expert with CouponSherpa.com. He says you can save 50 percent or more on consumer favorites, including those adorable Peeps and all-things Easter decor. "The savings will only get deeper as the month progresses, though the inventory will plummet as well."
The thought of taxes may send you into a nervous, stressful panic, even if you're getting a refund. To help placate the masses, "many businesses give their own 'tax breaks' on April 15 by offering deals and freebies to their customers," says Howard Schaffer, vice president of Offers.com. "Look for deals in a variety of businesses, especially restaurants and fast food chains."
Speaking of taxes, many business are founded in mid-April, just after Tax Day. "Newly formed organizations require office supplies, so expect office supply stores to have sales on office furniture, furnishings and desk supplies," says Jon Lal, CEO and founder of BeFrugal.com.
"April is the best time to score a deal on vacuum cleaners," says David Bakke, consumer expert at MoneyCrashers.com. "Retailers target the notion of spring cleaning and therefore offer these machines at discounts." This is also the month that new models are introduced, so last year's models are likely on sale. Consider shopping at a second-hand store for recently donated vacuum cleaners, as people replace their old ones.
"Cruel as it my have seemed, spring apparel debuted in February, tempting us with pretty florals and lightweight fabrics despite still-frigid temperatures," says Perez. "Typically items go on sale two months after they arrive, so mid-April offers both price relief and more appropriate weather for spring's latest trends." Keep your eye out for markdowns between 20 and 40 percent off, and note that deeper discounts may show up in May (though stock will have dwindled by this point).
'Tis the season to cultivate your garden and reignite your green finger. Warmer weather makes for growing season, as you know. Not only will you find that seeds, garden-supplies, soil and the like are a plenty, you'll also find noteworthy discounts on all of the above. Not to mention, you'll save plenty of money by harvesting your own herbs and vegetables vs. buying everything in stores.
Many runners pick up their calorie-burning habit after the weather heats up, which is right around late March through April. Retailers have taken note of this trend and offer enticing deals. "Last year, for example, Finish Line offered a coupon valid through the end of April offering $20 off orders of $125 or more," says Perez.