The advance figure released by the Commerce Department, which is subject to two revisions in the next two months, pegged the gross domestic product at minus 0.1 percent October through December.
The contraction was a surprise. Economists had predicted GDP growth of 1.1 percent.
Balancing out the dour report, Automatic Data Processing Inc. said the economy added 192,000 private sector jobs in January, which beat expectations.
Early attempts to gain momentum collapsed. The Dow Jones industrial average was off 44 points at the close, off 0.32 percent, to 13,910.42. The Nasdaq composite of tech-oriented stocks lost 11.35 points, or 0.036 percent, to 3,142.31. The Standard and Poor's 500 index lost 5.88 points, or 0.39 percent, to 1,501.96.
On the New York Stock Exchange, 1,025 stocks advanced and 1,996 declined on a volume of 3.6 billion shares traded.
The 10-year treasury note rose 3/32 to yield 1.992 percent.
Against the dollar, the euro rose to $1.3566 from Tuesday's $1.3492. The dollar rose to 91.08 yen from Tuesday's 90.73 yen.
In Tokyo, the Nikkei 225 index added 2.28 percent, 247.23 points, to 11,113.95.
In London, the FTSE 100 index dropped 0.25 percent, 16.08 points, to 6,323.11.