By Caroline Valetkevitch
NEW YORK (Reuters) - U.S. stocks ended down but well off the day's lows on Tuesday, with worries over geopolitical risks dragging down sentiment as investors readied for the start of U.S. earnings.
The worries drove investors into gold and other safe-haven assets and pushed up the CBOE Volatility index (.VIX), Wall Street's "fear gauge," which closed above 15 for the first time since Election Day.
"Geopolitical risk is the focal point right now," said Quincy Krosby, market strategist at Prudential Financial in Newark, New Jersey.
But, she said, "this is also a market trading at 18, 19 times forward earnings, and that's the higher range. The earnings season is unfolding, and that's going to be important."
Earnings season begins this week with results from a handful of banks. The financial sector (.SPSY), down 0.3 percent, was among the day's worst performers.
Technology was the biggest drag, with the tech index (.SPLRCT) down 0.4 percent.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Syrian government warplanes dropped barrel bombs on rebel-held areas of Hama province on Tuesday, a day after the United States said their use could lead to further U.S. strikes in Syria.
Trump ordered a missile strike on the war-torn country last week as a response to a poison gas attack that his administration blamed on government forces, pitting the United States against Russia, which backs Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Adding to the dour mood, North Korea state media warned of a nuclear attack on the United States if provoked as a U.S. Navy strike group moved towards the western Pacific.
The Dow Jones Industrial Average (.DJI) ended down 6.72 points, or 0.03 percent, to 20,651.3, the S&P 500 (.SPX) lost 3.38 points, or 0.14 percent, to 2,353.78 and the Nasdaq Composite (.IXIC) dropped 14.15 points, or 0.24 percent, to 5,866.77.
Stocks cut their losses in the last part of the session, though.
Trump, during a meeting with chief executives of U.S. companies, said his administration was working to reduce regulations and revamp the Dodd-Frank Wall Street reform law, which may be eliminated and replaced with "something else."
Shares of United Continental (UAL.N) fell 1.1 percent after a worldwide backlash erupted against the carrier over a passenger who was dragged off one of its U.S. flights. Late in the trading session, its chief executive issued an apology.
Thursday will be the last trading day of the week on Wall Street ahead of the Good Friday holiday.
About 6.4 billion shares changed hands on U.S. exchanges, compared with the 6.7 billion daily average for the past 20 trading days, according to Thomson Reuters data.
Advancing issues outnumbered declining ones on the NYSE by a 1.61-to-1 ratio; on Nasdaq, a 1.29-to-1 ratio favoured advancers.
The S&P 500 posted 5 new 52-week highs and one new low; the Nasdaq Composite recorded 59 new highs and 44 new lows.
(Additional reporting by Chuck Mikolajczak in New York and Yashaswini Swamynathan in Bengaluru; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and James Dalgleish)