NEW YORK – Stocks edged lower Tuesday, ending a three-day rally that had lifted the Dow Jones industrial average above 12,000 for the first time since an earthquake hit Japan more than a week ago.
The Dow dipped 17.90 points to close at 12,018.63. The broader Standard & Poor's 500 index fell 4.61, or 0.4 percent, to 1,293.77. The Nasdaq composite index fell 8.22, or 0.3 percent, to 2,683.87.
A day with such little change for stocks has been rare so far in March. The Dow has moved up or down by at least 100 points in four of the five previous trading days. Developments in Japan's nuclear crisis and the violence in Libya have been driving the volatility.
The Dow jumped 3.6 percent over the previous three days, its biggest gain since September. That has nearly brought the Dow back to its close of 12,044 on March 11, the day the earthquake struck Japan.
"We've had a really nice rally off the lows, but I think there are too many uncertainties still revolving around Libya and the recovery in Japan to give people the confidence to break the market through 1,300 on the S&P," said Carlton Neel, senior portfolio partner at Virtus Investment Partners.
Crude oil prices, a major source of concern since mid-February, rose $1.88 to settle at $104.97 per barrel. Oil briefly topped $105 on concerns that conflicts in the Middle East could pinch oil supplies as demand begins to rise.
Among the most active stocks, online video and DVD provider Netflix Inc. climbed 4 percent to $221.39. Credit Suisse upgraded the company on expectations it will expand its services overseas.
Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. rose 1 percent to $26.29. The company said late Monday that a new study of its melanoma drug helped patients with advanced skin cancer.
Walgreen Co. fell 6.6 percent to $39.21. The drugstore chain's bottom-line results were in line with expectations but the company's profit margin wasn't as strong as investors hoped.
Carnival Corp. fell 4.5 percent to $39.16 after its forecast for earnings this quarter fell short of expectations. Higher fuel prices are hindering its profits.
Stocks climbed consistently between Sept. 1 and Feb. 18, when the Dow closed at 12,391. That was the highest close since June 5, 2008. Stocks have dropped since then on worries that uprisings in Libya and across the Middle East could disrupt oil supplies.
The earthquake-tsunami disaster in Japan and the crisis at the country's nuclear plants that followed also sent stocks lower, though stocks in Japan and the U.S. have recovered in recent days on signs that the situation at the plants is stabilizing.
Falling shares outnumbered rising ones by a four-to-three margin on the New York Stock Exchange. Consolidated trading volume was 3.7 billion shares.