Dec. 26, 2012 at 9:41 AM ET
Stocks erased their early gains to turn lower Wednesday, dragged by the consumer discretionary sector, as ongoing worries over the looming "fiscal cliff" overshadowed a better-than-expected Case-Shiller home price index.
"There's just no certainty and people don't know where to step," said Stephen Guilfoyle of Meridian Equity Partners. "We're kind of in a quandary here—the market didn't catch at 1,422 like it was supposed to and the next catch point is 1,415 on the S&P. There's not a lot of volume and you have a lot of traders with question marks on their heads right now."
The Dow Jones Industrial Average dipped into negative territory for the third-straight session, led by Microsoft and UnitedHealth.
The S&P 500 and the Nasdaq also erased their gains to turn lower. The CBOE Volatility Index (VIX), widely considered the best gauge of fear in the market, gained near 19.
Most key S&P sectors turned lower, led by consumer discretionary and consumer staples, while materials held modest gains.
Obama will return to Washington early on Thursday, according to the White House, to deal with the deadlocked talks between Democrats and Republicans on what to do with $600 billion in tax increases and automatic spending cuts, due to kick in on Jan. 1.
"I don't think the President is coming back from Hawaii without anticipating we're getting something done so I'm optimistic and the street is somewhat optimistic too," said Gordon Charlop of Rosenblatt Securities. "You don't get a sense that they're selling into the pessimism that people are trying to circulate about the fiscal cliff not being resolved." (Read More: Over the Fiscal Cliff: What Kind of Landing?)
"[But] we'll be looking at muted volume," Charlop added. "It's going to be a wait-and-see session."
Wall Street has been increasingly worried that the two sides may not reach a deal in time. Art Cashin, director of floor operations for UBS, said such an outcome would result in a 95 percent chance of a U.S. recession next year.
The worries over the fiscal cliff and an extremely weak report on the holiday shopping season put major retail stocks including Macy's, Wal-Mart and Target under pressure.
Sales in the two months before Christmas rose just 0.7 compared to last year, the slowest rate of growth since 2008, according to the MasterCard Advisors Spending Pulse. Analysts had been expecting growth of 3 to 4 percent.
Amazon.com and Netflix were both slightly lower after an outage at an Amazon web service center impacted Netflix subscribers in the U.S., Canada, and Latin America on Christmas eve. Service was fully restored by Christmas day.
Meanwhile, Apple weighed on the tech sector and the Nasdaq 100 index, slipping nearly 1 percent.
Herbalife rallied, looking to snap a nine-day losing streak, after the nutrition and skin-care products company retained a legal firm to help defend itself against attacks by hedge fund manager Bill Ackman, according to the Wall Street Journal. Last week, Ackman shorted the Herbalife's stock and accused the company of operating a pyramid scheme.
On the economic front, the S&P/Case Shiller home price index of 20 major cities rose 0.7 percent in October on a seasonally adjusted basis, topping expectations for a gain of 0.5 percent. And prices in the 20 cities jumped 4.3 percent from last year, beating forecasts for an increase of 4.0 percent.
Meanwhile, the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond said manufacturers in the central Atlantic region posted modest activity in December, but at a slower pace than in November.
Stocks in Europe were closed for the Boxing Day holiday. In Asia, markets closed higher on thin volumes, with Japanese stocks rallying to hit nine-month highs on a weaker yen.
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