NEW YORK - Stocks fell on Tuesday, on concerns about the economy after a report showed consumer confidence hit a 16-year low and as a profit warning from United Parcel Service stoked fears about corporate results.
But trading volume was thin, with investors hesitant to place any big bets as they wait to see whether or not the Federal Reserve keeps interest rates on hold as expected Wednesday.
Inflation worries also loomed as the price of oil rose and the Fed began a meeting whose policy statement could underscore the central bank's growing unease about price pressures.
Shares of big manufacturers, seen as economic bellwethers, fell, with Caterpillar Inc down 4 percent. UPS shares were a top drag on the S&P 500, sliding 6 percent.
Besides grappling with a slowing economy, companies also face pressure from soaring fuel costs, which prompted Dow Chemical Co, the biggest U.S. chemicals manufacturer, to announce price increases of as much as 25 percent on its products.
"I think the market is starting to price in a higher likelihood of a recession and the UPS forecast certainly points to a much slower economy," said Paul Nolte, director of investments at Hinsdale Associates, in Hinsdale, Illinois.
The Dow Jones industrial average fell 34.93 points, or 0.29 percent, to close at 11,807.43. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index was down 3.71 points, or 0.28 percent, at 1,314.29, while the Nasdaq Composite Index slid 17.46 points, or 0.73 percent, to end at 2,368.28.
UPS shares fell to $62.26, a five-year low, after the package delivery company cut its second-quarter earnings outlook late on Monday, citing slow economic growth and high fuel costs.
The U.S. corporate profit outlook is deteriorating rapidly, Thomson Reuters Proprietary Research showed on Tuesday, with S&P 500 earnings for the second quarter now seen falling at a double-digit pace from a year earlier.
Shares of Caterpillar, the maker of bulldozers and excavators, fell to $76.64 on the New York Stock Exchange, while plane maker Boeing's shares dropped 1.1 percent to $74.79.
Dow Chemical shares fell 2.8 percent to $36.58.
A gain in financial shares helped keep losses in check. The S&P financial index, which is down nearly 12 percent this month, climbed 1.5 percent, led by Wells Fargo and JPMorgan Chase & Co. The biggest percentage gains were among regional banks, such as SunTrust, as investors looked for bargains in the beaten-down sector.
JPMorgan shares rose 2.3 percent to $37.72, while Wells Fargo gained 3.9 percent to $25.20. SunTrust shares jumped 4.1 percent to $37.40.
Yahoo shares were active, rising as much as 11 percent before giving up most of those gains to end up 2.8 percent at $22.04 on the Nasdaq. Technology blog TechCrunch said Yahoo's talks with Microsoft Corp were back on, citing unnamed sources. But CNBC, also citing unnamed sources, said there was no deal "whatsoever" on the table.
Apart from the decline in consumer confidence, investors also got an update on housing. According to the Standard & Poor's/Case Shiller home price index, U.S. home prices extended their record slide in April, but the pace of decline ebbed in the month.
The Dow Jones U.S. home construction index rose 3.9 percent.
Trading was light on the New York Stock Exchange, with about 1.34 billion shares changing hands, below last year's estimated daily average of roughly 1.90 billion, while on Nasdaq, about 2.19 billion shares traded, just above last year's daily average of 2.17 billion.
Declining stocks outnumbered advancing ones by a ratio of about 2 to 1 on the NYSE and about 3 to 1 on Nasdaq.