Worries that China trade talks are stalling weigh on stocks

Major U.S. stock indexes closed mostly lower Wednesday after wavering for much of the day between small gains and losses.

The downbeat finish extended the market’s mild losses from a day earlier. Even so, the benchmark S&P 500 index is on track to end the month with a gain of more than 3 percent, extending the market’s rebound over the last two months after a steep slide late last year.

“The market has quickly recovered back to the three prior tops that it had within the downturn,” said Tom Martin, senior portfolio manager with Globalt Investments.

Health care, communications and technology companies took the heaviest losses Wednesday, while financial, industrial and energy stocks notched gains.

The market had veered lower early in the day after comments from a key U.S. trade negotiator stoked doubt over how much progress was being made on resolving the trade war between the U.S. and China.

The news overshadowed a mix of corporate earnings reports. Weight Watchers plunged to its lowest point in nearly two years after issuing a dismal forecast. Best Buy surged on surprisingly good holiday sales.

All told, the S&P 500 index dropped 1.52 points, or 0.1 percent, to 2,792.38. The Dow Jones Industrial Average gave up 72.82 points, or 0.3 percent, to 25,985.16. The Nasdaq composite gained 5.21 points, or 0.1 percent, to 7,554.51.

Smaller companies fared better than the broader market. The Russell 2000 index picked up 3.57 points, or 0.2 percent, to 1,581.05. Major indexes in Europe declined.

Stocks headed broadly lower in early trading Wednesday after U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer told a panel of lawmakers that “much still needs to be done” before the U.S. and China can reach an agreement. China has offered to make major purchases of U.S. goods, such as soybeans and natural gas, in a bid to resolve the conflict, but Lighthizer said such steps wouldn’t be enough.

“The issues on the table are too serious to be resolved with promises of additional purchases,” he said. “We need new rules.”

Lighthizer’s comments are “creating market nervousness”, said Kristina Hooper, chief global market strategist at Invesco.

Negotiations between Washington and Beijing continue under the threat of additional tariffs on Chinese goods that could escalate the conflict and make products even more costly for consumers and companies.

President Donald Trump has postponed increasing tariffs on $200 billion in Chinese goods that would have been effective March 2. He has not given a new date for the higher tariffs if negotiations falter.

The main sticking point for the U.S. centers on ending cyber theft of commercial secrets, limits on state support for Chinese companies, and an end to the forced transfer of technology.

Investors continued to size up the latest batch of corporate earnings reports.

Weight Watchers plunged 34.5 percent after the weight-loss program operator gave investors a surprisingly weak forecast. The company did not sign up as many subscribers as it hoped this winter and expects its profits to suffer.

CEO Mindy Grossman said the company hopes to pull in more subscribers this spring, with high-profile investor Oprah Winfrey playing a central role in its upcoming TV and digital marketing campaign.

Dean Foods slid 13.8 percent after the food and beverage company reported a wider-than-expected loss in the fourth quarter and suspended its dividend.

Best Buy notched the biggest gain in the S&P 500, vaulting 14.1 percent after reporting that its holiday sales bucked a downward trend for retailers.

The electronics retailer’s profit beat forecasts, but more importantly a key retail sales measure continued growing during a tough quarter for the industry. The company also raised its quarterly dividend by 11 percent and its board of directors approved a $3 billion stock buyback program.

Other retailers also rose. Nordstrom added 3.7 percent, while Kohl’s gained 2.5 percent.

Palo Alto Networks climbed 8.2 percent after the cybersecurity company’s fiscal profit surged past analysts’ forecasts. The company also announced a $1 billion stock buyback program.

Energy stocks finished higher, helped by rising oil prices. Concho Resources added 2.7 percent.

U.S. crude climbed 2.6 percent to settle at $56.94 a barrel in New York. Brent crude, used to price international oils, gained 1.8 percent to close at $66.39 a barrel in London.

Bond prices fell. The yield on the 10-year Treasury note rose to 2.69 percent from 2.63 percent late Tuesday.

The dollar declined to 110.04 yen from 110.51 yen on Tuesday. The euro weakened to $1.1370 from $1.1395.

Gold fell 0.5 percent to $1,321.20 an ounce. Silver dropped 1 percent to $15.77 an ounce. Copper rose 0.4 percent to $2.96 a pound.

In other energy futures trading, wholesale gasoline jumped 3 percent to $1.63 a gallon. Heating oil rose 1.2 percent to $2.02 a gallon. Natural gas gained 0.1 percent to $2.80 per 1,000 cubic feet.