U.S. stocks declined slightly in low volume on Monday, pulling back from recent five-year highs as investors awaited the start of what many expect will be a weak earnings season.
Analysts forecast earnings will fall 2.4 percent from the year-ago quarter, which would mark the first decline in three years and make it difficult to justify keeping stocks near recent peaks.
The reporting season begins on Tuesday with results from aluminum company and Dow component Alcoa Inc , which is expected to post a decline in earnings compared with a year ago.
"We've had a good run, and we're toward the top end of range," said Scott Wren, senior equity strategist at Wells Fargo Advisors in St. Louis. "There's very little chance for surprises in the earnings. We're going to see downward comparisons overall."
The Dow Jones industrial average was down 33.93 points, or 0.25 percent, at 13,576.22. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index was down 6.02 points, or 0.41 percent, at 1,454.91. The Nasdaq Composite Index was down 22.37 points, or 0.71 percent, at 3,113.82.
With the lack of data and corporate earnings on Monday, trading is expected to be light due to the Columbus Day holiday. The U.S. bond market was closed.
Stock strategists and investors say U.S. stock valuations are broadly out of sync with earnings estimates.
Markets are also apprehensive about the outlook for the global economy after the World Bank reduced its growth forecasts for the East Asia and Pacific region and warned the slowdown in China could worsen and last longer than many analysts expect [ID:nL3E8L82LA]
Ongoing turmoil in Europe has contributed to weakened China forecasts. Eurozone officials met on Monday to launch the region's bailout fund, and at the meeting, regional finance ministers said that Spain did not need a bailout because it was taking steps to put its finances in order.
For investors, the long-term outlook for Europe is drawn-out debt problems, with obstacles still to overcome. "This thing has years to play out," said Wren. "We're nowhere near the end of this in any way, shape, or form."
When Alcoa reports, analysts expect a break-even quarter, down from a profit of 15 cents per share a year earlier, according to Thomson Reuters data. Alcoa shares rose 0.8 percent to $9.16.
Recent earnings warnings from large multinationals such as FedEx Corp , Caterpillar Inc and Hewlett-Packard Co , have cited weakness in Europe and China.
"Certainly there has been a lot of downward revisions in earnings in general. Some people are predicting that we may see an overall decline in earnings, so there may be some defensive posturing and profit-taking," Peter Jankovskis, co-chief investment officer at OakBrook Investments LLC in Lisle, Illinois, said.
According to Thomson Reuters data through Monday, 91 companies in the Standard & Poor's 500 have issued negative outlooks versus 21 positive preannouncements, for a ratio of 4.3, the weakest showing since the third quarter of 2001.
Apple Inc shares shed 1 percent to $646.19 and was the biggest drag on both the S&P 500 and Nasdaq 100 indexes after China Labor Watch, a rights advocate group, said that a Foxconn plant in China that makes Apple's iPhone was crippled by a strike. Foxconn, a Taiwanese company, denied the report.
UnitedHealth Group shares gained 0.7 percent to $57.52 after the health insurer said it would buy a 90 percent stake in Amil Participacoes SA , Brazil's largest healthcare company, for about $4.9 billion.
Chemicals maker TPC Group Inc said it received a buyout proposal from Innospec Inc for $721.3 million, topping an offer made by private equity firms. TPC shares jumped 4.7 percent to $45.41 while Innospec shed 0.7 percent to $33.69.
(Reporting by Atossa Araxia Abrahamian)