With the Fed meeting on Wednesday and Thursday to discuss its rate policy, Tuesday's stronger-than-expected economic data raised fears that the central bank would signal that more hikes are coming. It's nearly a foregone conclusion that the Fed will nudge rates a quarter percentage point higher; investors are worried about rate hikes in August and beyond.
A mild drop in existing home sales and an unexpected jump in consumer confidence showed the economy was moderating but remained sturdy, but investors were not consoled.
"As we look at that data, there's nothing that raises hopes that the Fed won't lift rates," said Art Hogan, chief market analyst for Jefferies & Co. In the coming sessions, "I think this market is going to bounce around in this trading range, with the path of least resistance to the downside."
While a spate of major acquisitions gave stocks a boost Monday, news that Spanish-language broadcaster Univision Communications Inc. agreed to be bought by an investor group for $12.3 billion failed to energize the market Tuesday. Citizens Banking Corp. also made a $1.05 billion deal to buy Republic Bancorp Inc.
The Dow plunged 120.54, or 1.09 percent, to 10,924.74.
Broader stock indicators also fell sharply. The Standard & Poor's 500 index dropped 11.36, or 0.91 percent, to 1,239.20, and the Nasdaq composite index lost 33.42, or 1.57 percent, to 2,100.25.
Bonds recouped some of their recent losses but remained at historic lows, with the yield on the 10-year Treasury note slipping to 5.21 percent from 5.24 percent late Monday. The U.S. dollar was little changed against other major currencies; gold prices lingered near $585 an ounce.
Rising oil prices also weighed on the market, as a Gulf Coast refinery snag stoked gasoline supply concerns during the busy summer driving season. A barrel of light crude added 12 cents to $71.92 on the New York Mercantile Exchange.
Tuesday's better-than-forecast data brightened the outlook for the economy. The Conference Board said its consumer confidence index for June gained 1 point to 105.7, beating estimates for a 0.8-point slide. Elsewhere, the Commerce Department said May existing home sales fell 1 percent to 6.67 million, which despite the decline topped the forecast of 6.61 million sales.
However, "these aren't really topline indicators," said Ken McCarthy, chief economist for vFinance Investments. "We'll see some jumping around when the numbers come out, but I don't think the market is going to make any major moves until we get some inkling of what the Fed is thinking."
At its two-day meeting, the Fed is expected to lift the nation's key short-term interest rate by a quarter percentage point to 5.25 percent. But with soaring energy costs pressuring prices elsewhere, some on Wall Street already predict another hike in August or the possibility of an aggressive half-point raise this week.
While the central bank's accompanying statement on the economy will be more closely examined, language that is increasingly hawkish on inflation would not be a surprise, said Russ Koesterich, senior portfolio manager for Barclays Global Investments. Ultimately, whether the Fed continues boosting interest rates depends on the economic data, he said.
"The Fed has consistently told you that its actions are going to be data dependent," Koesterich said. "Any indication that inflation is getting away from the Fed means hikes could go much further than is discounted.
In corporate news, Univision accepted an investor group's $36.25-per-share takeover offer, which was increased from an initial bid of $35.50 a share. Univision, however, had been asking for $40 per share. Univision jumped $1.97 to $34.
Dow industrial General Motors Corp. slid $1.85 to $25.90 after the automaker said its 2006 sales were likely to decline from last year due to higher lending rates and gasoline prices.
DuPont Co. shed $1.16 to $40.88 and also dragged on the Dow. Vivendi SA sold its stake in the chemical maker for $671 million.