Wall Street ends down for 4th day; caution prevails

NEW YORK (Reuters) - U.S. stocks fell on Wednesday as jitters about the economy prompted investors to unload some shares for a fourth-straight day even after a sharp drop in the previous session.

Major indexes fluctuated between positive and negative territory throughout the day before closing in the red, with S&P 500 posting its worst losing streak since late May.

A labor-market report showing more private-sector job losses in August than forecast made investors nervous ahead of Friday’s highly anticipated monthly jobs data from the U.S. Labor Department.

The weak data also prompted stock investors to shift some of their money into assets deemed safe such as precious metals, sending gold futures up to their highest level in almost three months.

“Investors are turning to gold as a hedge” against financial malady, said Chad Morganlander, portfolio manager at Stifel, Nicolaus & Co in Florham Park in New Jersey.

Financial stocks once again were top decliners. The KBW Bank Index .BKX lost 2.3 percent, with regional banks, such as SunTrust Banks STI.N down 7.2 percent at $20.17.

Regions Financials RF.N was down 6.3 percent at $5.19.

Traders work on the options trading floor at the New York Stock Exchange, May 26, 2009. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

Moving up were shares of gold producers as the price of gold rallied to $981.50 an ounce. Shares of Gold Fields Ltd. GFI.N gained 11.3 percent to $13.20 and the NYSE Arca Gold Bugs Index .HUI rose 9.3 percent to 383.66.

The Dow Jones industrial average .DJI closed down 29.93 points, or 0.32 percent, at 9,280.67. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index .SPX lost 3.29 points, or 0.33 percent, to 994.75. The Nasdaq Composite Index .IXIC fell 1.82 points, or 0.09 percent, to 1,967.07.

The current mean estimate of economists polled by Reuters is for a loss of 225,000 jobs in Friday’s non-farm payrolls report for August.

“The (non-farm payrolls) numbers don’t have to be great, but the market needs a confirmation that the trend is improving” to see a rebound, said Marc Pado, U.S. market strategist at Cantor Fitzgerald & Co. in New York.

The S&P 500 has climbed about 47 percent from a 12-year closing low in early March, leading some investors to speculate that a correction may be on the way.

Minutes from the most recent meeting of the Federal Reserve, released earlier in the day, showed improved outlook in August, but market reaction was muted.

On the Nasdaq, Dell Inc DELL.O was up 0.9 percent at $15.35, helping the tech-heavy index cap some losses. Shares of Leap Wireless International LEAP.O also climbed 7.5 percent to $17.71 on speculation that AT&T T.N was interested in buying the wireless service provider.

Another bright spot in Wednesday's market was the health insurance group. WellCare Health WCG.N gained 1.9 percent to $23.62 while Aetna Inc AET.N climbed 2.9 percent to $28.68.

Volume was light on the New York Stock Exchange, where 1.38 billion shares changed hands, below last year’s estimated daily average of 1.49 billion.

On the Nasdaq, about 2.00 billion shares traded, below last year’s daily average of 2.28 billion.

Declining stocks outnumbered advancing ones on the NYSE by a ratio of about 3 to 2. On the Nasdaq, about 14 stocks fell for every 13 that rose.