The Dow Jones industrial average fell 54 points to 12,875 in the first hour of trading. The broader Standard & Poor's 500 fell four points to 1,378. The Nasdaq slipped two points 3,045.
There were stark reminders Tuesday that the economy is far from healed. The National Federation of Independent Businesses said its index of small-business optimism fell in March after six months of gains, largely on worries about rising gas prices. That caused concerns that those companies might not generate as many jobs as had been hoped for. U.S. wholesale businesses also reported that they restocked their shelves at a slower pace at the beginning of the year.
JJ Kinahan, chief derivatives strategist for TD Ameritrade in Chicago, noted that stocks are still up for the year, the result of a rally that started around Thanksgiving. He brushed off the past week's losses as short-term blips on the radar.
"There seems to be this black cloud as everyone talks about the market," Kinahan said. "(But) a lot of these companies are in a good spot."
It's been a rough few days for the stock market. The Dow and the S&P have fallen for four days in a row, only the second time this year that that's happened. The losses started last week after the Federal Reserve indicated that it won't continue buying bonds to pump money into the economy. The losing streak continued after the government reported last Friday that job growth slowed in March to half the pace of the previous three months.
If the market closes down again Tuesday it will be the longest losing streak of the year for the Dow and the S&P. The longest losing streak before that was an eight-day plunge in late July and early August, just before the U.S. government's debt rating was downgraded. The Dow lost more than 850 points in that time. In the past four days, it's lost about 330.
Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke spoke again Monday night but didn't give investors much to hang on to, steering clear of the economy and instead focusing on regulatory policy.
The price of crude oil fell slightly, to less than $102 per barrel, but that wasn't necessarily a good sign. The decline is partly because traders are betting that the weak economy will keep demand for oil low. The decline is only a small relief for businesses and consumers struggling with high energy prices. Oil is still far above the $75 it was trading at in October.
There are also reasons to believe oil could be headed higher again after Iran declared that it would no longer ship crude to Greece. Iran has already cut off France and Britain. The hostility is related to Iran's nuclear program, which other countries want Iran to halt. New talks are scheduled to begin Saturday.
In Europe, Greece's main stock index shot up more than 3 percent even as most other markets fell. The gains in the volatile country came despite a worker strike that shut off ferry service and underscored how difficult it will be for the government to enforce spending cuts it needs to make to dig itself out of debt.
Indexes in France, Germany and Spain fell. Spain reported that it has been forced to pay more to attract investors to its government bonds, a sign that investors are increasingly wary about the financial health of the Spanish government.
The first-quarter earnings season starts after the market closes Tuesday, when aluminum producer Alcoa reports its results. Analysts are expecting a loss, partly because of a slowdown in China's growth and economic weakness in Europe. Some analysts are expecting a slight decline in year-over-year earnings growth, which would end a streak of nine quarters of gains. That could be a bad sign for the economy, but it does make it easier for companies to beat expectations when they report results.
"You might not say it's to their credit, you might not say it's the right thing to do, but the CEOs have done a very good job of setting expectations low," Kinahan said. "Because so many analysts expect flat earnings, these companies that show just 2 to 3 percent annualized level of growth may have hit a home run."
Among stocks making big moves:
--Supervalu Inc., the grocery chain that owns Albertsons and Jewel-Osco, climbed 7 percent. The company reported a quarterly loss but outlined turnaround plans that include closing stores and slashing jobs.
--Harley-Davidson rose 2 percent after Citi analyst Greg Badishkanian upgraded the stock to buy, predicting that sales will be strong in the beginning of the year.
--Best Buy fell 2 percent after announcing that its chief executive had resigned without a permanent successor. The electronics giant is struggling for market share in a world of online retailers.