Investors looked warily at forecasts for poor U.S. corporate earnings and weaker growth in Asia and decided there wasn't much reason to buy stocks.
In late afternoon trading Monday, the Dow Jones industrial average was down 17 points at 13,593. The Standard & Poor's 500 index fell four points to 1,457 and the Nasdaq composite gave up 20 points to 3,117.
Companies in the S&P 500 index are expected to post an overall decline in profits for the first time in 11 quarters, according to FactSet. The third-quarter earnings season starts on Tuesday when aluminum maker Alcoa releases its results.
Tuesday also marks the five-year anniversary of the record high closes of the Dow and the S&P 500. Both indexes are currently about 7 percent below those levels.
Stocks have been on a strong run, with the Dow up 11 percent this year and the S&P 500 — a benchmark tracked by many mutual funds — up almost 16 percent. But Asia's slowdown, Europe's problems, and now forecasts of weak U.S. corporate earnings have caused some investors to wonder whether the stock market has risen too far, too fast.
On top of those concerns, some market leaders like Apple have been falling in recent days, noted Bob Pavlik, chief market strategist at Banyan Partners LLC.
"It sort of leads folks into thinking, 'Why don't I take a little bit of profit off the table, put it away,'" and maybe re-invest it if third-quarter results turn out to be higher than expected, he said.
Apple closed above $700 on Sept. 18, but has been declining since then. On Monday it fell $10.35 to $642.24.
Also on Monday, the World Bank warned that a "more pronounced slowdown" is possible in China, the world's second-largest economy. It also cut its overall growth forecast for developing countries in Asia.
Slower growth in Asia could drag down the U.S. economy. One of the few bright points for the U.S. during the recession was tremendous growth in export demand by developing nations in Asia and other regions.
While the U.S. economy isn't doing badly, investors have been counting on growth in Asia for help, said Rex Macey, chief investment officer at Wilmington Trust Investment Advisors. "There was a point where we said 'Thank goodness for Asia and China. Their growth can fuel the recovery." That's not so clear anymore, he said.
Stocks and industries that depend most heavily on U.S. economic growth were among the biggest losers Monday. Intel fell 23 cents to $2.45. Home Depot fell $1.07 to $62.13 and Walt Disney lost 65 cents to $52.32.
Wal-Mart Stores and American Express shares didn't move much after they announced a reloadable prepaid card with no recurring or overdraft fees. But the news hammered shares of prepaid card competitor Green Dot Corp., which has also offered a card with Wal-Mart. Green Dot fell $2.43, or 19 percent, to $10.42.
UnitedHealth Group rose 61 cents to $57.74 after the health insurer said it would pay $4.9 billion in cash to buy most of Brazilian health benefits and hospital services provider Amil Participacoes.
Truck and engine maker Navistar rose $1.60, or 8 percent, to $22.80 after saying it will add two board members associated with activist investors, heading off a proxy battle.
European markets also closed lower. France's CAC-40 fell 1.5 percent, Germany's DAX fell 1.4 percent and Britain's FTSE 100 lost 0.5 percent.
U.S. government bond trading was closed for the Columbus Day holiday.