A batch of discouraging economic news deepened investors' concerns about corporate earnings, pulling major U.S. stock indexes down Wednesday for the second day in a row.
The modest slide cut the Standard & Poor's 500 index's gain for the year to less than one-tenth of a percent. Oil prices surged above $50 a barrel on signs that U.S. production growth is slowing.
Payroll processor ADP said U.S. companies added fewer jobs last month than economists had expected, while an index of manufacturing activity declined for the fifth month in a row. In addition, the government said U.S. construction spending fell in February.
"The data show we definitely hit a bit of a slowdown in the first quarter, and now investors are getting worried about the upcoming earnings reports," said Chris Gaffney, a senior market strategist at EverBank Wealth Management.
Many of the stocks that fell the most Wednesday were also some of the biggest gainers during the first three months of the year. The health-care sector notched the biggest decline in the S&P 500. Even so, it's up 4.8 percent this year, leading the nine other sectors in the index.
The Dow Jones industrial average fell 77.94 points, or 0.44 percent, to 17,698.18. The 30-company index was down as much as 191 points. It's down 0.7 percent for the year.
The S&P 500 index slid 8.20 points, or 0.4 percent, to 2,059.69. The index is now up 0.04 percent for the year.
The Nasdaq composite lost 20.66 points, or 0.42 percent, to 4,880.23. The tech-heavy index ended is up about 3 percent this year.
Half of the 10 sectors in the S&P 500 fell. Telecommunications services led among the gainers, rising 0.8 percent.
The price of oil rose sharply Wednesday on signs that U.S. production growth is slowing, a weaker dollar that makes oil a more attractive investment to overseas buyers, and anticipation that a delay in talks with Iran over its nuclear program could keep Iranian oil off the world market.
Benchmark U.S. crude rose $2.49 to close at $50.09 a barrel in New York. Brent crude, a benchmark for international oils used by many U.S. refineries, fell $1.99 to close at $57.10 in London.
U.S. government bond prices rose. The yield on the 10-year Treasury note fell to 1.86 percent from 1.93 percent late Tuesday.
In metals trading, gold rose $25 to $1,208.10 an ounce, silver rose 46 cents to $17.06 an ounce, and copper edged down less than a penny to $2.75 a pound.
In other futures trading, natural gas fell 3.5 cents to close at $2.605 per 1,000 cubic feet.