Nobody ever said reading the Federal Reserve was easy.
On Wednesday, the Fed appeared to suggest it was closer to taking additional steps to help the U.S. economy. Stocks finished the day well off their lows.
But Fed help seemed less certain Thursday, and stocks fell. The Dow Jones industrial average lost 115.30 points to close at 13,057.46 -- the biggest loss in more than a month and the Dow's fourth straight down day.
James Bullard, president of the Fed's St. Louis bank, told CNBC the minutes from a recent Fed meeting were "stale" because the economy had picked up. If it becomes "a bit stronger," he said, the Fed will hold off.
"He poured some water on the fire of the QE3 talk," said Ryan Detrick, senior technical strategist at Schaeffer's Investment Research, using market slang for a Fed program of bond-buying to help the economy.
The government also reported that jobless claims rose last week, the second straight increase. The Standard & Poor's 500 index fell 0.81 percent to 1,402.08. The Nasdaq composite index fell 0.66 percent to 3,053.40.