NEW YORK - Stock indexes closed lower Thursday, a third straight decline, after U.S. retailers issued weak forecasts for earnings and more people filed claims for unemployment benefits.
Wal-Mart, Ross Stores and Limited Brands, the owner of Victoria's Secret, all fell after issuing forecasts that disappointed financial analysts. Wal-Mart fell $2.59, or 3.6 percent, to $68.72.
The Dow Jones industrial average wavered between small gains and losses shortly after the opening bell, then moved lower at midmorning. It closed down 28.57 points at 12,542.38.
The Standard & Poor's 500 index dropped 2.16 points to 1,353.33 and the Nasdaq composite finished 9.87 points lower at 2,836.94.
Stocks have fallen steadily since voters returned President Obama and a divided Congress to power. The Dow has lost 5 percent since Election Day, Nov. 6.
Investors are worried that U.S. leaders may not reach a deal before tax increases and government spending cuts take effect Jan. 1. The impact would total $700 billion for 2013 and could send the country back into recession.
Bill Stone, chief investment strategist at PNC Asset Management Group in Philadelphia, said the bargaining in Washington would likely drag on until next year, weighing on stocks. "It's hard to see the market getting a whole ton of traction until that gets settled."
Obama will meet with congressional leaders Friday to talk about the budget.