Fears of a global financial freeze-up caused by the European debt crisis have receded, but many now worry that Europe's recession will hurt sales by American exporters such as GM and Caterpillar. Caterpillar lost 1.9 percent.
European stocks closed mostly lower, giving up earlier gains, after signs that European Central Bank will not inject more cash into the region's fragile banking system.
Trading of U.S. stocks was uneven because investors were "balancing between a weak close for European stocks and trying to bet on what (the monthly jobs report) will look like," said Peter Tchir, who runs the hedge fund TF Market Advisors.
The labor market has been on traders' minds all week because the government's monthly jobs report is due out Friday. The final major indicator before that announcement was positive: The number of people applying for unemployment benefits fell last week by the most in three months.
The conflicting economic indicators offered little direction for major U.S. stock indexes. They opened down, rose slightly in the first 15 minutes of trading then turned lower. Eight of the 10 industry groups in the Standard & Poor's 500 index fell. Two rose, but barely.
The Dow Jones industrial average fell 61.98 points, or 0.5 percent, to 13,206.59. The S&P 500 dropped 10.74, or 0.8 percent, to 1,391.57. The Nasdaq composite average slid 35.55, or 1.2 percent, to 3,024.30
The Carlyle Group, a big, politically-connected private equity firm, edged higher after an initial public offering that raised $671 million. The company had priced its stock below the expected range late Wednesday. Carlyle, trading on the Nasdaq under the ticker "CG," has about $147 billion in assets under management.
Other swinging stocks:
Green Mountain Coffee Roasters Inc. • Plunged 47.8 percent. The maker of single-cup coffee machines and cartridges said late Wednesday that its earnings for the fiscal year ending in September will be far below its previous forecast and analysts' estimates. Green Mountain shares have lost more than three-fourths of their value since September.
Cablevision Systems Corp. • Dropped 7.9 percent after its first-quarter revenue fell short of analysts' expectations and profit declined sharply.
Viacom Inc. • Owner of MTV and Paramount Pictures, rose 3.4 percent after saying its net income rose sharply as its TV networks brought in more revenue.
Orbitz Worldwide Inc. • Rose 4.4 percent after narrowing its first-quarter loss and beating analysts' estimates.