By Chuck Mikolajczak
NEW YORK (Reuters) - U.S. stocks lost ground for a third consecutive session on Wednesday on growing uncertainty over when the Federal Reserve may start to wind down its stimulus, which has been a driving force behind the rally in equities this year.
Even after the benchmark S&P 500 index suffered its biggest decline since June 24 on Tuesday, the market was unable to bounce back following comments from a pair of Fed officials that gave little clarity to how soon the central bank might reduce its bond-buying program.
The S&P 500 broke below 1,694.06, its 14-day moving average, which had served as a support level. The broad market index is down 1.1 percent for the week, on track for the worst weekly performance since a drop of 2.1 percent during the week of June 21 after the Fed's last policy meeting.
However, the index is still up 18.6 percent this year after closing at a record high on Friday.
"People were concerned about the extent of the rally in the short term, and some people are talking about equities being too expensive relative to the underlying fundamentals," said Stephen Massocca, managing director at Wedbush Equity Management LLC in San Francisco.
"And of course, the big story, the next big piece of news, one would think, is the taper tantrum."
Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland President Sandra Pianalto said on Wednesday that the central bank would be prepared to scale back asset purchases if the labor market remains on the stronger path followed since last fall.
The Dow Jones industrial average <.DJI> fell 48.07 points or 0.31 percent, to end at 15,470.67. The S&P 500 <.SPX> declined 6.46 points or 0.38 percent, to 1,690.91. The Nasdaq Composite <.IXIC> dropped 11.761 points or 0.32 percent, to 3,654.009.
Volume was once again light, with about 5.49 billion shares traded on the New York Stock Exchange, the NYSE MKT and Nasdaq, far below the daily average of 6.35 billion. Volume on Monday was the lowest of the year for a full trading session.
Walt Disney Co
First Solar Inc
Ralph Lauren Corp
The two stocks were the S&P 500's worst performers.
Equity markets have been closely tied to central bank policy, with many investors concerned that economic growth isn't robust enough to boost stocks without the Fed's help. Last week, the July payroll report was much weaker than expected.
Charles Evans, the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, said on Tuesday that the Fed would probably scale back its bond-buying program later this year, perhaps beginning as early as next month, depending on economic data.
That echoed comments made earlier on Tuesday by Dennis Lockhart, the president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, though he told Market News International that the Fed might continue its stimulus program if growth doesn't meet its targets.
After the closing bell, Tesla Motors Inc
Of the 434 companies in the S&P 500 that had reported earnings through Wednesday morning, Thomson Reuters data showed that 66.8 percent topped analysts' expectations, in line with the 67 percent beat rate over the past four quarters. On the revenue side, 54.1 percent have reported revenue above estimates, more than in the past four quarters, but below the 61 percent average since 2002.
Declining stocks outnumbered advancing ones on the NYSE by a ratio of about 7 to 3, while on the Nasdaq, about two stocks fell for every one that rose.
(Editing by Nick Zieminski and Jan Paschal)