Stocks had their worst two-day pullback in six months after clashes in Libya sent oil prices to two-year highs and Hewlett-Packard said its revenue growth was slowing.
Forces loyal to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi continued to fight with anti-government demonstrators, leading to widespread chaos and shooting in the streets of the Libyan capital, Tripoli. Nearly 300 people have been killed, according to the New York-based Human Rights Watch.
The unrest sent oil up 2.8 percent to $98 a barrel Wednesday, its highest price since October 2008. Libya is the world's 15th largest exporter of crude, accounting for 2 percent of global daily output. Traders are worried the revolt could threaten Libya's oil production and spread to other countries in the region.
"We're at a point where the market is concerned over this series of dominoes in the Middle East and wonders if there's another country that's next to fall," said David Katz, a portfolio strategist for Weiser Capital Management.
Oil companies benefited from the higher crude prices. Chevron Corp. was the biggest gainer in the Dow average, rising 1.9 percent. Exxon Mobil Corp also gained 1.9 percent. Energy companies in the Standard & Poor's 500 index rose 2 percent, the only gain among its 10 company groups.
The Dow Jones industrial average lost 107.01 points, or 0.9 percent, to 12,105.78. The Dow has fallen 285.47 points, or 2.3 percent, over the last two days. It was the largest drop since August 12.
The S&P 500 fell 8.04, or 0.6 percent, to 1,307.40. The Nasdaq composite fell 33.43, or 1.2 percent, to 2,722.99.
Each major index has gained more than 10 percent over the last three months, leading some analysts to say that the situation in Libya is giving traders an opportunity to sell and lock in profits after the market's recent run-up.
The market's two-day stumble is only its second significant decline this year. The other came on Jan. 28, when protests in Egypt escalated.
"The market has strong fundamentals and those will once again dominate very shortly," said Doug Cote, senior market strategist with ING Investment Management.
Technology stocks fell after Hewlett-Packard Co., a bellwether for the group, gave a disappointing revenue forecast for the current fiscal year. The stock fell 9.6 percent, the most out of the 30 that make up the Dow average.
Government bond prices slipped after an auction for five-year notes drew only modest demand. The yield on the benchmark 10-year Treasury note rose to 3.49 percent from 3.46 percent late Tuesday. Bond yields rise when their prices fall.
DirecTV Group Inc. rose 1.8 percent after the satellite TV provider said it attracted more new subscribers in the fourth quarter than it has in a decade. Washington Post Co. fell 5.9 percent after its fourth-quarter net income fell 3 percent on flat revenue.
Two stocks fell for every one that rose on the New York Stock Exchange. Consolidated volume came to 5.8 billion shares.