msnbc.com news services
updated 4/19/2005 8:10:24 AM ET 2005-04-19T12:10:24

Wall Street staggered to a mixed finish Monday as investors, coming off last week’s steep sell-off, fretted about an uncertain economic outlook and digested strong first-quarter earnings and a pair of merger announcements.

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Wall Street struggled to find a bottom after three straight triple-digit drops for the Dow Jones industrial average, but sharply fluctuating share prices and the lack of a solid recovery rally spoke to investors’ continued nervousness about the possibility of inflation in the middle of a projected slowdown in economic growth.

“After you see a decline of the magnitude we saw Friday, you’d expect some degree of recovery, but we’re not seeing much, and that’s very uninspiring,” said Hugh Johnson, chairman and chief investment officer of Johnson Illington Advisors. “This makes me believe that we may have further to go before we find a bottom here.”

Steve Massocca, head of trading at Pacific Growth Equities, was more sanguine. Pessimism on Wall Street has reached a peak, he said, and so the stock market is likely close to a bottom.

“There are lots of indications that pessimism has reached an irrational level,” he told CNBC. “So in the short term we are due for a bounce.”

The Dow Jones industrials closed Monday’s seesaw session down 16.26 points, or 0.2 percent, while the broader Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index added 3.36 points, or 0.3 percent. The Nasdaq composite index gained 4.77 points, or 0.3 percent.

Oil prices moved in and out of negative territory Monday, adding to Wall Street’s uncertainty. A barrel of light crude settled at $50.37, down 12 cents on the New York Mercantile Exchange.

The volatility and lighter volume in stocks were due in part to a pair of economic reports coming later in the week — Tuesday’s Producer Price Index, which measures wholesale price increases, and its retail counterpart, the Consumer Price Index, due on Wednesday. Many analysts have projected slower economic growth for the second half of the year — and if the reports point to a rise in prices, slower growth could turn into no growth.

“These are very important reports, and it’s not surprising that investors would pay considerable attention to them,” said Jack Caffrey, equities strategist at J.P. Morgan Private Bank. “This will forecast the state of the economy and what the Federal Reserve might do with interest rates, and it’s not surprising investors would be skittish taking large positions in front of that.”

Inflation worries have dogged the markets since early March, when it appeared the Dow might reach the 11,000 mark. Now, with the Dow threatening to fall below 10,000 for the first time since Oct. 26, investors are looking to economic data and the Fed’s May 3 meeting for signs of improvement and a better read on the economy and interest rates. The Fed is expected to raise the nation’s benchmark interest rate by a quarter percentage point to 3 percent at the meeting.

In Monday’s merger news, Adobe Systems Inc. announced it will pay $3.4 billion in stock to acquire fellow software maker Macromedia Inc. , combining the latter’s Web-design software with Adobe’s document design offerings. Adobe dropped $5.89, or 9.7 percent, to $54.77, while Macromedia climbed $3.27, or 8.5 percent, to $36.72.

Electronics Boutique Holdings Corp. surged $14.09, or 34.3 percent, to $54.78 after the video game and software retailer said it will be acquired by rival GameStop Corp. for $1.44 billion in cash and stock, a 34 percent premium over Electronics Boutique’s closing price on Friday. GameStop rose $2.10 to $23.71.

Bank of America saw a sharp rise in first-quarter profits thanks to the acquisition of FleetBoston and lower credit costs. The nation’s third-largest bank beat Wall Street profit forecasts by 17 cents per share after one-time costs. Bank of America rose 45 cents to $44.73.

3M Co. fell $4.96 to $75.90 despite posting a 12 percent hike in quarterly profits. The industrial conglomerate, best known for its Scotch brand and Post-It office supplies, credited strong sales and operational efficiencies for the gains, which beat analysts’ expectations by 2 cents per share. Revenues, however, were less than Wall Street had hoped for.

Toy manufacturer Hasbro Inc. swung to a loss for the quarter due to higher costs and lower revenue. The company lost 2 cents per share for the quarter, while analysts had expected profits of 4 cents per share. Hasbro nonetheless rose 2 cents to $19.31.

Markets overseas finished Monday sharply lower in response to last week’s steep sell-off in the United States .

In Tokyo, stocks were further pressured by deteriorating relations with China, with Japan’s Nikkei stock average tumbled 3.8 percent. And European share prices fell as investors worried about lackluster corporate earnings in addition to Wall Street’s sell-off last week.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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