Stock indexes closed lower Thursday, a third straight decline, after U.S. retailers issued weak forecasts for earnings and more people filed claims for unemployment benefits.

Wal-Mart, Ross Stores and Limited Brands, the owner of Victoria's Secret, all fell after issuing forecasts that disappointed financial analysts.

The Dow Jones industrial average wavered between small gains and losses shortly after the opening bell, then moved lower at midmorning. It closed down 28.57 points at 12,542.38.

The Standard & Poor's 500 index dropped 0.16 percent to 1,353.33 and the Nasdaq composite index fell 0.35 percent to 2,836.94.

Stocks have fallen steadily since voters returned President Barack Obama and a divided Congress to power. The Dow has lost 5 percent since Election Day.

Investors are worried U.S. leaders may not reach a deal before tax increases and government spending cuts take effect Jan. 1. The impact would total $700 billion for 2013 and some fear that could send the country back into recession.

T. Dale, of Security Ballew Wealth Management in Jackson, Miss., said that stocks are more likely to fall than rise.

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"The market has gotten well ahead of itself," Dale said.