Stocks fell modestly on Tuesday, with the S&P 500 retreating from a record close, as investors considered the timing of reduced monetary stimulus from the Federal Reserve and monitored budget negotiations on Capitol Hill.
The Dow Jones Industrial Average ended the day unofficially 52 points lower, with 22 of its 30 components in the red, led by Microsoft.
The S&P 500 also slid 5 points, with utilities and consumer staples the worst performing of its 10 major sectors. After wavering between small gains and losses, the Nasdaq ended 8 points lower.
"As we approach this holiday season, investors are questioning why they are bidding aggressively for stocks. It's a combination of valuations may be too far ahead and some uncertainty over the budget issues," said Bruce McCain, chief investment strategist, Key Private Bank in Cleveland.
The S&P 500 has surged more than 26 percent this year, a pace destined to slow in 2014, many analysts, including McCain, believe.
That said, money continues to flow from bond funds and into equities, with the underlying theme of gradual economic improvement supporting the trend, McCain said. "On balance, more people want in than out. As long as stocks don't run away from the rate of improvement, I'm not sure there really are any good alternatives to equities," he added of other asset classes.
On the New York Mercantile Exchange, oil futures rose $1.17, or 1.2 percent, to finish at six-week high of $98.51 a barrel. Gold futures added $26.90, or 2.2 percent, to end at a three-week high of $1,261.10 an ounce.
The market impact of the Volcker Rule, approved unanimously on Tuesday by regulatory agencies, was negligible. "I'm really not sure people are paying close attention to that. The bigger question is whether to taper or not to taper," McCain added of the debate over the Fed's asset purchases.
And, Wall Street also offered a collective yawn to data from the Labor Department's Bureau of Labor Statistics, which reported job openings in October rose to 3.93 million, up slightly from the month before. The report is said to be a favorite of Janet Yellen, nominated to chair the Fed when Ben Bernanke's term expires next month.
The Fed will also be awaiting the results of budget negotiations, as lawmakers have until Friday to reach an agreement to reduce automatic spending cuts and halt a three-year streak of failed fiscal discussions.
Forecasting central-bank moves can be dicey, as the markets learned in September, when the Federal Reserve opted not to begin reducing its $85 billion in monthly bond purchases. That said, it increasingly appears that tapering could start at the Fed's meeting next week.
"As we all continue the debate over when (if seems no longer on the table) the Fed will alter its asset purchase program, we've gotten a clear message from the Treasury market and that is 'it's about time'," emailed Peter Boockvar, chief market analyst at the Lindsey Group, referring to the rise in borrowing costs reflecting in the benchmark 10-Treasury yield, which lately held at 2.812 percent.
On Tuesday afternoon, the Treasury auctioned $30 billion in three-year notes at a high yield of 0.631 percent. The bid-to-cover ratio, an indicator of demand, was 3.55.
The executive shuffle comes after the Treasury late Monday said the U.S. government had sold its final stake in GM, which had to be rescued at the height of the global financial crisis.
In China, data from the National Bureau of Statistics showed industrial production in that country climbed 10 percent last month from the year-earlier period, just shy of estimates.
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