Clashes continued in Egypt between pro- and anti-government demonstrators. Many analysts worried that the political instability could spread to oil-rich countries throughout the Middle East, such as Saudi Arabia.
"That's the fear," said Peter Cardillo, chief market economist at Avalon Partners.
The Dow Jones industrial average fell 17, or 0.1 percent, at 12,025.
The Standard & Poor's 500 index fell 2, or 0.2 percent, at 1,302. The Nasdaq composite index fell 2, or 0.1 percent, at 2,748.
The declines came even as the nation's retail chains reported surprisingly strong revenue gains in January. Financial analysts had feared that snowstorms would hurt spending. But Costco Wholesale Corp., Limited Brands and Gap Inc. all beat Wall Street expectations, and their stocks rose by more than 1 percent.
The Labor Department also reported that fewer people applied for unemployment benefits last week. That's a good sign ahead of the more significant employment report that comes Friday when the government releases its monthly survey of all U.S. payrolls and the unemployment rate.
Economists are hopeful that companies will increase hiring this year, especially after another Labor Department report said productivity rose by the largest amount since 2002 in December. Economists say many employers have reached the limit in terms of how much work they can squeeze from their employees.
The Commerce Department also said that factory orders rose in December, the fifth gain in six months.
In corporate news, warehouse club operator BJ's Wholesale Club Inc. rose 13.7 percent after it said it is considering selling itself after months of buyout speculation.
Dow Chemical Co. rose 1.6 percent after the chemical maker reported a sharply higher fourth-quarter profit as sales rose around the globe.
But Merck & Co. fell 2.9 percent after the company said the drugmaker said it lost $531 million in the fourth quarter due to costs from its acquisition of Schering-Plough Corp. in 2009. Merck was the weakest performer of the 30 companies that make up the Dow average.
Ameriprise Financial Inc. was the worst performer in the S&P 500, falling 6.7 percent. The asset management and financial planning company reported results late Wednesday that fell short of Wall Street estimates.