updated 8/13/2004 7:21:01 AM ET 2004-08-13T11:21:01

Rising crude oil prices and disappointing earnings from Hewlett-Packard Co. sent stocks plummeting Thursday, with the market's three major indices sinking to new year-to-date lows.

Major Market Indices

Crude surged past the $45 per barrel mark, trading at $45.50, up 70 cents, on the New York Mercantile Exchange. That raised concerns that the Federal Reserve, which hiked interest rates to 1.5 percent on Tuesday, would have to be aggressive in further rate increases to combat inflation — at the same time that earnings growth and the economy is slowing down.

“Obviously, oil prices are spooking the market,” said Peter Cardillo, chief strategist and senior vice president at S.W. Bach & Co. “I think, based on today’s fundamentals, the market is very cheap and oversold. Unfortunately, oil is hanging over everything.”

On top of the oil issue, Hewlett-Packard was the latest in a string of technology companies to disappoint Wall Street with second-quarter earnings. Like Cisco Systems Inc. and National Semiconductor Corp. earlier this week, HP said its third quarter would be similarly grim.

At the close, the Dow Jones industrial average was down 123.73 points, or 1.2 percent, at 9,814.59. It was the third triple-digit drop in the Dow in the past six sessions, and broke through the 2004 low set on Monday. It was the lowest close on the Dow since Nov. 28.

Broader stock indices were also substantially lower. Hit hard by HP’s earnings and the other warnings, the Nasdaq composite index was down 29.93 points, or 1.7 percent, at 1,752.49 by the close. It was the Nasdaq’s lowest finish since Aug. 18, 2003.

And the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index fell 12.56 points, or 1.2 percent, to 1,063.23 — its lowest finish since Dec. 10.

Mixed economic news did little to help matters. The Labor Department said first-time jobless claims moved to a five-week low, perhaps signaling some moderation in a very disappointing job market. However, the Commerce Department reported that business inventories rose by 0.9 percent in June, the biggest jump in four years — a sign that businesses are having trouble moving products off the shelves.

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The department also reported an 0.7 percent increase in retail sales for July, up from a 0.5 percent decrease in June but less than the 1 percent gain economists expected. Retail sales are considered a strong indicator of the state of the economy, which is fueled in large part by consumer spending.

And consumer prices are in danger of rising should oil prices continue their rise, since companies have to pay fuel prices to ship their products to stores.

“There’s a huge demand for oil out there right now, on top of all the terrorism fears and the unrest in oil-producing countries,” said Scott Wren, equity strategist for A.G. Edwards & Sons. “If prices rise, the Fed is going to have to react aggressively, even as earnings decelerate and the economy slows. It’s a tough situation.”

Hewlett-Packard’s problems were due to corporate spending, not consumers. The company blamed “execution issues” in its corporate and enterprise sales divisions, and said it would make management changes immediately. HP, which missed estimates by 7 cents per share, plunged $2.57, or 13 percent, to $16.95.

Rival computer maker Dell Inc. was down 45 cents to $33.12 as Wall Street waited for its earnings report. After the session, Dell announced that it exceeded estimates by 7 cents per share, sending its stock 3 cents higher to $33.15 in after-hours trading.

Closely watched retailers Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and Target Corp. both released earnings Thursday that beat Wall Street estimates. Wal-Mart, which earned a penny per share more than expected, said it was concerned about increased shipping prices due to fuel costs, but gave an otherwise upbeat assessment. Wal-Mart rose $1.02 to $52.65.

Target gained $1.48 to $41.90 after it also surpassed estimates by a penny per share before one-time charges and benefits. The sale of its Marshall Field’s stores to May Department Stores Inc. helped to nearly quadruple its profits for the quarter.

Declining issues outnumbered advancers by nearly 3 to 1 on the New York Stock Exchange, where volume was light.

Overseas, Japan’s Nikkei stock average fell 0.2 percent. In Europe, Britain’s FTSE 100 closed up 0.4 percent, France’s CAC-40 slipped 0.3 percent for the session, and Germany’s DAX index dropped 0.6 percent.

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