"Nobody really wants to make a big move one way or the other in front of who-knows-what over the weekend," said Arthur Hogan, chief market analyst at Jefferies & Co. Inc.
The Dow Jones Industrial Average declined 14.33 points, or 0.1 percent, to 9,827.13. The Nasdaq Composite fell 15.47 points, or 0.6 percent, to 2,419.33.
New York Stock Exchange trading volume reflected the market's wariness, ebbing 11 percent to 695 million shares.
The reasons for caution were several: an unexpected elevation of the Balkans conflict over the weekend, Russia's decision to freeze ties with NATO, and Tuesday's Federal Reserve meeting.
Add in some concerns over first-quarter earnings reports and, to some investors, it made sense to sit things out on the sidelines.
"What the market hates is the unknown," Hogan added. "And we'd like to have some of this unknown behind us."
In cyberspace, Amazon.com (AMZN) fell 13/16 to 139 1/16 after rising as much as 7 7/8 points amid expectations that the online retailer is readying an auction site.
CyberShop International (CYSP) rose 2 1/4 to 13 1/8 after the Web retailer pulled the wraps off its own online auction site.
TeleBanc Financial (TBFC) vaulted 10 1/8 to 68 9/16. The Internet bank couldn't account for the rise. TeleBanc plans a secondary offering of 3.8 million shares in the next few weeks.
Investors jumped back into top-tier computer-related names. Sun Microsystems (SUNW) dropped 1 13/16 to 116 1/2 despite positive comments from Merrill Lynch. The broker raised its price objective to $140 from $120, citing the company's big presence in Internet computing.
Also, IBM appreciated 1 1/16 to 172 3/8. Among big-cap technology losers, Cisco Systems gave back 2 1/4 to 105 3/16, Microsoft 1 13/16 to 178 1/8, MCI WorldCom 1 1/8 to 89 7/8, and Applied Materials 3 1/4 to 57 13/16.
In Friday's market indicators:
- The Standard & Poor's 500 Index sank 0.6 percent.
- New York Stock Exchange losers outpaced winners by 17 to 13.
- Declining issues led advancers by 82 shares in the Nasdaq Stock Market.
- The Russell 2000 Index of small-company stocks climbed 0.2 percent.
In the bond market, prices eased. The 30-year Treasury fell 5/32, to yield 5.597 percent.
Among the companies in the news:
- Oil shares printed moderate rises after Prudential lifted its rating on a number of oil & gas drillers. Included were: Transocean Offshore (RIG), gaining 1 to 27 7/8 on an upgrade to "strong buy" from "hold." while Halliburton (HAL) rose 5/8 to 38 1/8, Seitel (SEI) 1 1/4 to 14, and Ensco International (ESV) 2 1/8 to 14 on upgrades to "strong buy" from "accumulate."
- Hutchinson Technology (HTCH) said it will lay off 550 employees due to lower-than-expected customer demanand improved production efficiency. The maker of suspension assemblies for computer disk drives still believes fiscal second-quarter earnings will be in line with market expectations. Hutchinson will announce its second-quarter results after the market closes on April 20. The shares lost 2 5/8 to 20 7/16.
- Inacom (ICO) warned it will report a first-quarter operating loss of between 10 cents and 20 cents a share. Wall Street had expected a profit of 37 cents. "While we expected the first quarter to be soft, the revenue slowdown occurring in the marketplace has resulted in an operating performance below our expectations," the company said in a statement. The information technology services provider aims to report first-quarter results during the week of April 19. The stock stumbled 4 to 7 3/16.
- General Cigar Holdings (MPP) said it is in the process of negotiating the sale of its mass market cigar business. The company will retain its premium cigar business. The stock rose 1 to 10 1/2.
- Lexmark International (LXK) rallied 9 3/16 to 103 13/16 after Morgan Stanley Dean Witter fattened its opinion to "strong buy" from "outperform," setting a 12-month price target of $141. Lexmark manufactures laser and inkjet printers.
- Tech Data (TECD) advanced 3/8 to 16 1/2 and Ingram Micro (IM) added 1 7/32 to 18 5/16. Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette analyst Kevin A. McCarthy repeated his "outperform" rating on the computer distributors. The analyst likes the fact that Compaq Computer will name the two as primary distributors for its ProSignia line of products.
- Comfort System (FIX) tacked on 1 3/4 to 15. In a BusinessWeek magazine report, Mark Baylin of T. Rowe Price Associates believes the heating, ventilation, and air conditioning company would make a good buyout target for a large utility.
- Telescan (TSCN) drove ahead 3 1/16 to 19 9/16 after BusinessWeek reported that the financial data provider will offer online stock trading.
- King World Productions (KWP) rose 1 to 29 15/16. The television programming syndicator has been the subject of takeover speculation recently.