Updated Wednesday, December 26, 2012 at 07:54 PM
For the stock market, this week hasn't been the most wonderful time of the year.
U.S. stocks fell Wednesday for the third trading day in a row. Disappointing holiday sales weighed heavy on retail companies, and the unwelcome "fiscal cliff" package of higher taxes and lower government spending loomed nearer.
The Dow Jones industrial average slipped 24.49 points to 13,114.59. The Standard & Poor's 500 index fell 6.83 to 1,419.83 and the Nasdaq composite lost 22.44 to 2,990.16.
Karyn Cavanaugh, market strategist with ING Investment Management in New York, wrote a note to clients Wednesday highlighting the less-than-merry retail sales.
"I hope that they're reading this from the mall," she said later, "because retail sales could use a boost."
The MasterCard Advisors SpendingPulse report found that sales of electronics, clothing, jewelry and home goods increased just 0.7 percent in the two months before Christmas compared with the same period last year.
That was well below the 3 to 4 percent that analysts had expected and the worst performance since 2008, when spending shrank during the depths of the Great Recession.
Major U.S. retailers including Abercrombie & Fitch, Sears Holdings, Urban Outfitters, Limited Brands, Nike and Gap were all down. Handbag maker Coach, a bellwether of the luxury market, plummeted $3.39 to $54.13. It lost nearly 6 percent of its value, more than any other company in the S&P 500.
Right behind it was online retailer Amazon.com, which helps analysts get a read on the entire retail market. It lost nearly 4 percent, falling $9.99 to $248.63.
Plodding retail sales are a concern because consumer spending accounts for roughly 70 percent of the U.S. economy. When shoppers pull back on spending, that can take a chunk out of company earnings, which in turn pushes down the stock market.
The retail numbers are also a sign that despite scattered hints of an improving economy, including a report Wednesday about rising home prices, many consumers remain uneasy about their prospects.
"Consumers just aren't confident," said Jeff Sica, president and chief investment officer of SICA Wealth Management in Morristown, N.J. "They don't feel a sense of security that they're going to be able to maintain their job or their income or their savings."
Sica pointed out that normally the market rises at this time of year - the so-called Santa Claus rally. Since 1969, stocks have risen an average of 1.6 percent over the last five days of December and the first two of January, according to The Stock Trader's Almanac.
This year, it seems, the retail sales and "fiscal cliff" have been too much of an overhang.
The "fiscal cliff" refers to lower government spending and higher taxes that will kick in Jan. 1, if Republicans and Democrats can't agree to a new budget by then.
The Senate is due in session Thursday, and President Barack Obama is expected to return early from his Christmas vacation in Hawaii, arriving back in Washington early Thursday. Still, congressional officials said Wednesday they knew of no significant strides toward a compromise over the long Christmas weekend, and no negotiations have been set.
It's not clear that the market would automatically rise if there is a deal, or automatically fall if there isn't. Except for the past three days, the market has risen more or less steadily since mid-November despite the lack of a "fiscal cliff" deal. That means many traders have been assuming that lawmakers would work out something before the deadline, so any positive effect from a compromise is already baked into stock prices.
While a compromise is still possible, some analysts said that what the market feared most wasn't the cliff, but the possibility that lawmakers would come up with only a stop-gap solution. That would probably mean they'd have to meet again in the new year to hammer out a permanent deal, dragging out the uncertainty.
"It's like ripping the Band-Aid off now versus later," Cavanaugh said. "The Band-Aid's got to come off. We've got to cut spending, we've got to pay down the debt."
The bright spot was a report from the Standard & Poor's/Case-Shiller national home price index, which said that home prices rose in most major U.S. cities in October compared with a year ago. However, prices fell in many cities compared to the month before.
The yield on the benchmark 10-year Treasury note edged down to 1.75 percent from 1.77 percent Monday, a sign that investors were taking money out of stocks and putting it into bonds.
It was the first trading day after the Christmas holiday. Trading volume was low, and European markets were still closed.
Just 2.3 billion shares were traded on the New York Stock Exchange. For the year so far, the average has been around 3.6 billion.