Investors took little comfort from the latest deal to deliver financial aid to Greece and increases in U.S. consumer confidence and orders for machinery and equipment.
The Dow Jones industrial average fell 35 points to 12,932 as of 11:25 a.m. Tuesday. The Standard & Poor's 500 was down three points at 1,403. The Nasdaq composite index fell three points to 2,968 points.
ConAgra advanced $1.28 to $29.56 after it agreed to buy Ralcorp for $5 billion in a deal that will make it the nation's biggest maker of private-label foods. Ralcorp surged $18.48 to $88.72. Corning Inc., a specialty glass maker, rose 76 cents to $12.32 after it said that North American television sales are stronger than expected in the fourth quarter, boosting demand for its products.
Investors were unmoved by two reports that suggested that the outlook for the U.S. economy may be improving. Concern about global growth and the "fiscal cliff" in the U.S. may hold back gains for stocks that have rallied this year, said Uri Landesman, President of Platinum Partners, a New York-based hedge fund. The S&P is up 11.6 percent this year, the Dow 6 percent.
"The glass is half-empty right now," Landesman said. "With the S&P over 1,400 you're going to need to see really good data for the market to rise, and the data wasn't good enough to really pick us up here."
Consumer confidence rose this month to the highest level in almost five years, pushed up by steady improvement in hiring. The Conference Board's consumer confidence index rose to 73.7 in November from 73.1 in October. Both are the best readings since February 2008.
The government reported separately that U.S. companies increased their orders of machinery and equipment last month, a sign that business investment is rising. Orders rose 1.7 percent in October, the best showing since a 2.3 percent rise in May.
Stocks have pared some of the losses that followed the U.S. elections Nov. 6 as investors fretted over a looming budget crisis in Washington, commonly referred to as the fiscal cliff.
The S&P declined as much as 5 percent in the weeks after voters returned a divided government to power, with President Barack Obama returning to the White House and Republicans retaining control of the House. The two parties must agree on measures to trim the U.S. budget deficit before the end of the year to avoid a series of sharp tax increases and spending cuts that will come into force Jan. 1. Economists have warned that the measures could push the economy back into a recession.
Stocks initially advanced in Europe after Greece's partners in the euro currency and the International Monetary Fund agreed to release funds the country needs to avoid bankruptcy. They also agreed to introduce a series of measures designed to reduce the country's debts to a more manageable level within a decade.
The yield on the 10-year Treasury note was little changed at 1.66 percent.
Among other stocks making big moves:
— Las Vegas Sands Corp. rose $1.94 to $45.98 after the casino operator said it would pay a special dividend of $2.75, distributing about $2.26 billion to shareholders before the end of the year.
— Airgas Inc., a specialty supplier of medical and industrial gases, fell $2.53 to $87.94 after disclosing that its chairman sold 1.2 million shares of the company's stock in a privately negotiated block trade.