Sometimes a down day on Wall Street can be a good thing — especially when it shows that investors are carefully weighing their next steps.
Traders collected a few profits Tuesday, leaving the major indexes with fairly modest losses, as the market waited for key reports on the government's assessment of banks' health and the latest numbers on jobs.
But stocks held on to most of their gains from Monday, which saw the Standard & Poor's 500 index recoup the last of its losses since the beginning of the year. That advance came on hopeful signs in the housing market and extended a two-month rally that brought stocks up from 12-year lows.
The Dow fell 16.09, or 0.2 percent, to 8,410.65.
"Today's action, just drifting around, is not that surprising given Monday's rally," said Darin Newsom, a senior analyst at DTN in Omaha, Neb.
Many analysts believe it's actually good for the market to pause after a big advance, particularly when Wall Street has had its best two-month performance in nearly 35 years. Tuesday's showing proved that investors aren't buying with abandon, and are considering whether they want to put more money into stocks given the challenges the market faces later this week.
On Thursday, the government will release results of its stress tests on banks, and on Friday, the Labor Department issues some of the most closely watched data on the Street, its monthly tally of job losses and unemployment.
The Standard & Poor's 500 index fell 3.44, or 0.4 percent, to 903.80. The modest pullback left the index essentially flat for the year to date. The S&P 500 is widely used as a benchmark for mutual funds and other investments.
The Nasdaq composite index lost 9.44, or 0.5 percent, to 1,754.12, and the Russell 2000 index of smaller companies fell 4.27, or 0.8 percent, to 502.55.
About eight stocks fell for every seven that rose on the New York Stock Exchange, where consolidated volume came to 6.6 billion shares compared with 6.9 billion shares Monday.
Investors showed little reaction to the day's economic data, including a private report on the service sector that showed a seventh straight month of contraction. However, the pace of that decline slowed more than expected — further evidence that the economy's slide is moderating.
Investors are mindful that the stock market typically turns around, on average, about four months ahead of the economy, so stocks tend to rise even when economic data still isn't robust. The S&P 500 is up 33.6 percent since Wall Street's rally began March 10. The Dow is up 28.5 percent.
Liz Ann Sonders, chief investment strategist for brokerage Charles Schwab & Co., said at a press briefing in New York that the economy could have stopped sliding.
"There is some chance — it may not be more than a slim chance — but some chance that we may actually already be out of the recession," she said.
Still, the market could easily decide to take a less optimistic view of what it sees.
"Over the past several weeks we've come through a period where all data was interpreted through rose-colored glasses," said Lawrence Creatura, portfolio manager at Federated Investors. "Now, it's a question of whether investors continue to have that perspective."
A keen point of interest for the market right now is what the government will say Thursday when it releases the results of the bank "stress tests," which will determine which banks may need to raise more capital.
The Wall Street Journal reported that about 10 of the 19 financial institutions undergoing the tests will be required to boost their capital levels as a buffer against potential future losses. The report cited several unidentified people familiar with the matter.
Regulators have said no large institution would be allowed to fail, and have pledged government funds if necessary.
Financial stocks were mixed. Bank of America Corp. rose 46 cents, or 4.4 percent, to $10.84, while Wells Fargo & Co. fell 98 cents, or 4 percent, to $23.27.
Dow component Kraft Foods Inc. said its first-quarter profit rose a better-than-expected 10 percent even as sales dropped. Shares of the maker of Velveeta, Oreo cookies and Maxwell House coffee rose 96 cents, or 4 percent, to $25.22.
Bond prices dipped, pushing the yield on the 10-year Treasury note up to 3.17 percent from 3.16 percent late Monday. Mortgage rates were mixed. The average overnight rate for a 30-year fixed rate was 5.03 percent, up from 4.86 percent last week, according to Bankrate.com.
The dollar was mixed against other major currencies, while gold prices rose.
Light, sweet crude fell 63 cents to settle at $53.84 per barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange.
Overseas, Britain's FTSE 100 rose 2.2 percent, Germany's DAX index fell 1 percent, and France's CAC-40 fell 0.4 percent. Markets in Japan were closed for a holiday.