Wall Street closes lower as investors ready for earnings

(Reuters) - Wall Street closed slightly lower on Monday, with gains in materials and banks countered by declines in consumer staples shares, as investors girded for the start of an earnings season expected to be gloomy.

Equities gave up gains late in the day with the three major indexes finishing in negative territory after posting losses last week.

Investors were looking for cues from the first-quarter earnings season, beginning with Alcoa's AA.N report after the bell.

The metals company reported a lower quarterly profit, with results hurt by low alumina and aluminum prices, and its shares fell more than 2 percent in extended trading.

Profits at S&P 500 companies are expected to have fallen 7.7 percent in the first quarter, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.

“This is just all jitters and anticipation of the beginning of earnings season,” said Jonathan Corpina, senior managing partner with Meridian Equity Partners in New York. “The expectations aren’t that high for earnings this quarter, so I think investors are starting to feel a little uneasy about that.”

A rocky start of the year was followed by a sharp rebound since mid-February and stocks are now little changed for 2016.

Financial shares .SPSY, the worst performing group this year, were among the leaders on Monday. JPMorgan JPM.N, Citigroup C.N and Bank of America BAC.N all gained ahead of their quarterly reports later this week.

“I don’t really read too much into the action today because I just think people are waiting to see what the earnings outlook is, particularly with the banks,” said Walter Todd, chief investment officer at Greenwood Capital Associates in Greenwood, South Carolina.

The Dow Jones industrial average .DJI fell 20.55 points, or 0.12 percent, to 17,556.41, the S&P 500 .SPX lost 5.61 points, or 0.27 percent, to 2,041.99 and the Nasdaq Composite .IXIC dropped 17.29 points, or 0.36 percent, to 4,833.40.

Of the 10 S&P sectors, only financials and materials closed higher.

Norfolk Southern NSC.N shares fell 2.7 percent to $79.28 after Canadian Pacific CP.TO said it was giving up on its $28 billion bid to buy the railroad.

National Oilwell Varco NOV.N dropped 6.1 percent to $27.32 after the oilfield equipment maker said it would cut its quarterly dividend.

About 6.5 billion shares changed hands on U.S. exchanges, below the 7 billion daily average for the past 20 trading days, according to Thomson Reuters data.

Advancing issues outnumbered declining ones on the NYSE by 1,801 to 1,224, for a 1.47-to-1 ratio on the upside; on the Nasdaq, 1,437 issues fell and 1,388 advanced for a 1.04-to-1 ratio favoring decliners.

The S&P 500 posted 21 new 52-week highs and 3 new lows; the Nasdaq recorded 38 new highs and 28 new lows.

Reporting by Lewis Krauskopf in New York; additional reporting by Abhiram Nandakumar in Bengaluru; Editing by Nick Zieminski and Meredith Mazzilli