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S&P 500 falls, ending a four-day winning streak, as drop in oil price drags down energy stocks

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NEW YORK — Stocks fell broadly on Wednesday, snapping a four-day winning streak for the Standard & Poor's 500 index, as investors shaken by recent swings in the market sold some of their holdings.

A slide in the price of oil dragged down energy stocks. Eight of the 10 industry groups in the S&P 500 fell, led by a 1.7 percent drop in energy. Small-company stocks also fell as traders unloaded riskier assets.

"The market is still nervous," said John Manley, chief equity strategist at Wells Fargo Funds Management. "The extreme volatility of the last few weeks is on our minds."

The drop in the S&P 500 came a day after the index's biggest gain this year.

Stocks were higher most of the morning on hopes that the European Central Bank would add to its stimulus program as well as news that U.S. inflation remained low last month. A batch of good earnings reports from U.S. companies also helped.

Those gains vanished in the afternoon as the price of crude oil began to drop. Traders have worried about a steady decline in oil as global demand for energy recedes.

"The market is taking a bit of breather," shrugged TD Ameritrade Chief Strategist JJ Kinahan. "People are reassessing what their expectations should be for the rest of the earnings season."

The S&P 500 dropped 14.17 points, or 0.7 percent, to 1,927.11. The Dow Jones industrial average fell 153.49 points, or 0.9 percent, to 16,461.32. The Nasdaq composite fell 36.63 points, or 0.8 percent, to 4,382.85.

The losses were mitigated by a batch of generally positive third-quarter earnings reports, which suggested that corporate profits were still growing at a healthy clip. Yahoo jumped 5 percent after reporting blowout earnings.

The closely watched Vix index, a gauge of expected swings in stock prices, surged nearly two points to 18. That is above the recent average of 15, but far below last week's high of 30.

TD Ameritrade's Kinahan suggested investors may have pushed up the Vix in reaction to news of a gunman killing a soldier outside a war memorial in Canada earlier in the day. But he was doubtful the shooting impacted the overall market much.

A big question hanging over stocks is just how good can corporate earnings get as Europe inches closer to recession and China slows.

PHOTO: Specialist Michael Gagliano, left, calls out prices as he works at his post on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, Wednesday, Oct. 22, 2014. Stocks are opening mixed as investors look over earnings reports from U.S. companies. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)
Specialist Michael Gagliano, left, calls out prices as he works at his post on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, Wednesday, Oct. 22, 2014. Stocks are opening mixed as investors look over earnings reports from U.S. companies. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

So far this earnings season, investors have been encouraged. With about a fifth of S&P 500 companies out with their results and outlooks, stocks look reasonably priced as measured by expectations of future earnings. The index is trading at 15.8 times expected earnings per share over the next 12 months, according to S&P Capital IQ, a research firm. That is not much lower— meaning cheaper —than the average of 16.4 since 2001.

But other measures, comparing stock prices to earnings over the past 10 years, for instance, suggest the market may be overvalued.

Investors will get a clearer view on Thursday, a big day for earnings across industries. Those reporting include Microsoft, 3M, Amazon.com, Caterpillar and United Continental.

The government reported that consumer prices rose 1.7 percent in the year to date through September, below the 2 percent target set by the Federal Reserve. Low inflation has allowed the central bank to keep rates at record lows to help the economy by encouraging lending and hiring.

Frank Fantozzi, CEO of money management firm Planned Financial Services, says low inflation is another reason to resist selling when stocks are dropping, like they did Wednesday.

"Energy prices are pretty low and wages have stayed pretty flat. You look at that, and GDP growing pretty healthily, and there are too many good things," Fantozzi said. "The market should push through this."

Among stocks making big news:

— Broadcom, a semiconductor company, rose 5.5 percent, the largest gain in the S&P 500, after reporting earnings late Tuesday that topped Wall Street estimates. The stock rose $2.04 to $39.37.

— Biogen Idec dropped 5 percent despite a strong quarter. The drug company said a patient who took its newest multiple sclerosis drug suffered a brain inflammation and later died. The stock dropped $17.70 to $309.07.

The price of oil fell sharply after the Energy Department reported an increase in oil inventories that was far larger than analysts expected. The benchmark U.S. crude contract fell $1.97 to $80.52 a barrel in New York.

Brent crude, a benchmark for international oils used by many U.S. refineries, fell $1.51 to close at $84.71 on the ICE Futures exchange in London.

In other energy futures trading on the NYMEX, wholesale gasoline fell 5.7 cents to close at $2.156 a gallon, heating oil fell 4.0 cents to close at $2.473 a gallon and natural gas fell 5.2 cents to close at $3.659 per 1,000 cubic feet.

Bond prices didn't move much. The yield on the 10-year Treasury note held steady at 2.22 percent.

Gold fell $6.20 to $1,245.50 an ounce, silver fell 32 cents to $17.23 an ounce and copper fell a penny to $3.02 a pound.

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PHOTO: Specialist Michael Gagliano, left, calls out prices as he works at his post on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, Wednesday, Oct. 22, 2014. Stocks are opening mixed as investors look over earnings reports from U.S. companies. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)
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