NEW YORK -- U.S. stocks declined on Friday, with the Dow industrials and S&P 500 recording their worst month since May 2012, as Wall Street considered a possible U.S. strike against Syria.
"The only variable that really matters is the possibility of a Syrian intervention. A portion of the volatility we saw this week was certainly related to news flow regarding the Middle East," said Lawrence Creatura, portfolio manager at Federated Investors.
Meeting with the presidents of Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia, President Barack Obama on Friday called the use of chemical weapons a "challenge to the world."
The president's words followed the release of U.S. intelligence that found the Syrian government to be behind a chemical attack that killed 1,429 people in a suburb of Damascus.
"It's really going to be dependent upon what happens over the next few days, if Obama can take enough of a break from the Labor Day holiday to launch some rockets against Syria, then it becomes more interesting," said Robert Pavlik, chief market strategist at Banyan Partners LLC.
In a nationally televised statement Friday afternoon, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry condemned the "indiscriminate and inconceivable horror of chemical weapons," while outlining Washington's case against the Syrian government in a deadly attack in Syria last week.
Major indexes tallied weekly losses.
"We've had a strong run this year and we are entering a seasonally treacherous time of year. Historically, autumn, and the months of September and October specifically, can be treacherous and unforgiving," Creatura said.
The Dow Jones industrial average on Friday closed down 30.64 points, or 0.2 percent, to 14,810.31, a level that left it with a 1.3 percent drop on the week.
The Standard & Poor's 500 index lost 5.20 points, or 0.3 percent, to 1,632.96, down 1.8 percent for the week. The Nasdaq composite fell 30.43 points, or 0.8 percent, to 3,589.87. It slid 1.9 percent for the week.
"This could be one of the lowest-volume days this year. A lot of folks are sitting on the sidelines, waiting for direction," Pavlik said.
"Skeleton crews are manning the trading desks. I wouldn't trust this week's moves too much. It's like a household when the parents are away, and teenagers are running the show," Federated's Creatura said.
The pre-holiday-weekend trade saw worries over Syria ebb and flow, with stocks on Thursday gaining as U.S. military strikes against Syria appeared less imminent and after better U.S. economic data.
Late Thursday, Britain's prime minister failed to win parliamentary support for the action.
On Friday, France signaled it could step in as the main U.S. ally in the possible retaliation for Syria's alleged use of chemical weapons.
An improved gauge of Chicago-area business activity failed to deflect disappointing data on consumer trends.
The reports were "mixed, with some positive and some negative data, which is fairly typical of recent reports. Any data we receive today will really be evaluated more properly when everyone returns on Tuesday," Creatura said.
After a brief initial flirtation with positive territory, the stock indexes on Friday fell after an index of consumer sentiment declined to a final August reading of 82.1 from 85.1 the month before.
Stocks had briefly improved after the release of the Chicago business barometer, or PMI, which increased to 53 in August from 52.3 in July. Economists surveyed by MarketWatch had expected the index to climb to 53.5.
Ahead of Wall Street's open, stock-index futures lost what little steam they had after data from the Commerce Department had spending and personal income both rising 0.1 percent in July, the first month of the third quarter.
Economists polled by MarketWatch had anticipated a 0.3 percent advance in spending and a 0.1 percent rise in net income.
"Consumers and corporations have remained very cautious about spending, as higher taxes and the government sequester (reduced spending) have started to work their way through the economy," Howard Silverblatt, senior index analyst at S&P Dow Jones Indices, said in a morning note.
On the New York Mercantile Exchange, gold futures fell for a third session, with the most-active December contract down $16.80, or 1.2 percent, at $1,396.10 an ounce, but higher for the month.
Crude also extended losses, with oil futures down for a second session. Futures for October delivery declined $1.15, or 1.1 percent, to $107.65 a barrel.
Among movers, Salesforce.com Inc.'s shares rallied 13 percent after the customer-management-software provider reported profit projections that exceeded expectations.