U.S. stocks fell for a third straight day on Wednesday, dragged lower by retail stocks after a report showed consumers spent less in the holiday shopping season than last year.
Many investors said concerns about the "fiscal cliff" kept shoppers away from stores, suggesting markets may struggle to gain any ground until that issue is resolved. The CBOE Volatility Index or VIX, Wall Street's favorite barometer of investor anxiety, rose 4.46 percent, closing above 19 for the first time since Nov. 7.
A number of 2012's strongest performers advanced, a sign\ that portfolio managers may be engaging in "window dressing," a practice where market participants buy securities with big gains to improve the appearance of their holdings before presenting the results to clients. Bank of America Corp, which has more than doubled in 2012, added 2.6 percent to $11.54 on Wednesday.
Holiday-related sales rose 0.7 percent from Oct. 28 through Dec. 24, compared with a 2 percent increase last year, according to data from MasterCard Advisors SpendingPulse. The Morgan Stanley retail index skidded 1.8 percent while the SPDR S&P Retail Trust slipped 1.7 percent.
"With the 'fiscal cliff' hanging over our heads, it was hard to convince people to shop, and now it's hard to convince investors that there's any reason to buy going into year-end," said Rick Fier, director of trading at Conifer Securities in New York.
President Barack Obama is due back in Washington early Thursday for a final effort to negotiate a deal with Congress to bridge a series of tax increases and government spending cuts set to begin next week, the so-called "fiscal cliff" many economists worry could push the U.S. economy into recession if it takes effect.
Coach Inc fell 5.9 percent to $54.13 as the S&P 500's biggest decliner, followed by Amazon.com, down 3.9 percent at $248.63, and Abercrombie & Fitch, off 3.5 percent at $45.44. Ralph Lauren Corp, Limited Brands and Gap Inc also ranked among the S&P 500's biggest decliners.
The Dow Jones industrial average slipped 24.49 points, or 0.19 percent, to 13,114.59 at the close. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index shed 6.83 points, or 0.48 percent, to 1,419.83. The Nasdaq Composite Index dropped 22.44 points, or 0.74 percent, to 2,990.16.
J.C. Penney Co was a notable exception to the weakness in retail stocks, surging 4.4 percent to $20.75 as the S&P 500's biggest gainer. It was followed closely by Bank of America and Genworth Financial, which gained