Setting the negative sentiment, General Electric reported a 6% decline in first-quarter net profit, largely over trouble in its financial-services businesses. .
"It's a huge miss," said Philippe Gijsels, senior equity strategist at Fortis. "It sets a very bad tone for the rest of earnings season."
The Dow Jones Industrial Average shed 134.43 points to 12,447.55.
The S&P 500 fell 16.31 points to 1,344.24, while the Nasdaq Composite declined 28.08 points to 2,323.62.
Early economic data did little to offset the market's bearish tone, with the Labor Department reporting a surge in prices for imported petroleum pushed the price of imports the most since November 2007. .
"The surge in import prices is occurring because of weakness in the U.S. dollar and because of worldwide inflation pressures," said Tony Crescenzi, bond market strategist for Miller Tabak & Co.
On the New York Mercantile Exchange, gold and crude-oil futures fell, with crude down 77 cents to $109.34 a barrel while gold shed $2.3 to $926 an ounce.
European shares weakened as General Electric's earnings raised concerns for the health of its rivals overseas. .
U.S. stocks finished Thursday with gains, as a broker's upgrade of several microchip stocks including Intel Corp. as well as an improved earnings forecast from Wal-Mart Stores helped set a positive tone. The Dow industrials ended up 54 points, the tech-heavy Nasdaq Composite rose 29 points and the S&P 500 added 6 points.
By Kate Gibson