updated 6/20/2006 8:44:37 AM ET 2006-06-20T12:44:37

Wall Street pulled back sharply Monday, as a lack of economic news left investors hesitant to buy stocks ahead of the Federal Reserve’s interest rate decision next week.

Major Market Indices

Falling commodity prices and some strength in the U.S. dollar eased the inflation picture, but weakness in oil- and metal-related stocks pulled the market lower. Investors also found little direction without any new economic data to feed speculation over whether the Fed will hike rates again at its two-day meeting June 28-29.

Brian Gendreau, investment strategist for ING Investment Management, said investors appeared confused about what was driving the market now that hopes for a soft landing — for example, a gentle rise in interest rates that would contain inflation but preserve the economy’s momentum — were running dry.

“I think when you get swings like this back and forth, it’s indicative of a wide divergence of opinions in the market,” Gendreau said, adding that he believes the market could see sharp moves in either direction but will ultimately continue drifting sideways until there is more clarity on interest rates.

Some stocks got a boost from news of a joint venture between Nokia Corp. and Siemens AG. But the market turned lower at midday after the National Association of Home Builders said its June index of new home sales dropped to its lowest point since April 1995.

The Dow Jones industrial average finished the day down 72.44 points, or 0.66 percent, after sliding as much as 107 points earlier. Last week, a two-day bounce broke nearly six weeks of heavy selling and carried the Dow 1.13 percent higher for the week .

The broader Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index declined 11.40 points, or 0.91 percent, while the Nasdaq composite index dropped 19.54 points, or 0.92 percent.

Overseas markets continued showing some improvement as Wall Street leveled off from its recent retreat. Japan’s Nikkei stock average slipped 0.13 percent; Britain’s FTSE 100 gained 0.51 percent, Germany’s DAX index rose 1.18 percent and France’s CAC-40 was higher by 0.73 percent.

Elsewhere, the U.S. dollar advanced on the Japanese yen and was flat versus European currencies. Gold prices tumbled to less than $570 per ounce.

Bonds extended last week’s decline, with the yield on the 10-year Treasury note inching up to 5.14 percent from 5.13 percent late Friday. Short-term bond yields remained above long-term rates, signaling greater expectations of an economic slowdown in the U.S.

Crude oil futures dipped despite persistent worries about a potential supply cutoff amid rising tension over Iran’s nuclear arms program. A barrel of light crude slid 90 cents to settle at $68.98 on the New York Mercantile Exchange.

Trading was expected to be skittish this week with few economic reports due. Investors will likely pay attention to new home starts and weekly unemployment claims for updates on the health of the housing and job markets, but those figures will have little impact on the market’s obsession with inflation and interest rates.

The sole piece of economic news Monday came from the NAHB, which said June new home sales slid to 42 from 46 the previous month. Readings below 50 mean a greater proportion of homebuilders anticipate weak results.

But with second-quarter earnings season approaching next month, Wall Street will start focusing on companies’ warnings amid mounting concerns that higher interest rates and soaring energy costs might be eating away at corporate profits.

“I don’t see much happening until we get into earnings season,” said Peter Cardillo, chief strategist at S.W. Bach & Co. If few companies warn about their results, “I think that would be a good indication we could move higher once the earnings season goes into full gear.”

In corporate news, Nokia and Siemens are combining their mobile network operations in a joint venture expected to generate about $20 billion in annual revenue and help the companies compete with market leader Ericsson AB. Nokia rose 12 cents to $20.09 and Siemens surged $4.10 to $83.90.

Electronics retailer Circuit City Stores Inc. swung to a profit from a year-ago loss, helped by store improvements and strong sales of flat-panel televisions. Circuit City nonetheless slid 85 cents to $28.63.

Declining issues led advancers by 3 to 1 on the New York Stock Exchange. NYSE consolidated volume of 2.36 billion sharply lagged the 3.32 billion shares that changed hands Friday.

The Russell 2000 index of smaller companies lost 12.31, or 1.78 percent, to 680.76.

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