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Rate worries hammer Wall Street again

Wall Street extended its month-long retreat Monday, as inflation fears kept investors on edge following hefty losses last week, the worst so far in 2006. A late-day sell-off dragged the Dow Jones industrial average down nearly 100 points and put the Nasdaq composite index at a seven-month low.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Wall Street extended its monthlong retreat Monday as inflation fears kept investors on edge following hefty losses last week, the worst so far in 2006. A late-day selloff dragged the Dow Jones industrials down nearly 100 points and put the Nasdaq composite index at a seven-month low.

Investors have been reluctant to buy stocks ever since the Federal Reserve said in early May that record oil prices could require higher interest rates to keep prices from climbing elsewhere. Downbeat inflation comments from Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland President Sandra Pianalto on Monday was another reminder for an already uneasy market.

But recent signs of slowing economic growth now has Wall Street worried that too many rate hikes could send the economy sliding. Trading was expected to be skittish this week ahead of wholesale and consumer price data, which might bring clues about whether the Fed will boost rates again at its June 28-29 meeting.

“There are certainly some positives in the economy to point to, but until we get some more clarity on the battle between inflation and economic growth, the markets are likely to remain volatile,” said Michael Sheldon, chief market strategist at Spencer Clarke LLC.

The Dow tumbled 99.34, or 0.91 percent, to 10,792.58, its lowest close since hitting 10,749.76 on Feb. 7. The blue-chip index shed 355 points last week and is 7.3 percent below its six-year high of 11,642.98, reached May 10.

Broader stock indicators also retreated. The Standard & Poor’s 500 index slid 15.90, or 1.27 percent, to 1,236.40, closing in negative territory for the first time this year; the Nasdaq lost 43.74, or 2.05 percent, to 2,091.32.

The Nasdaq has declined just over 10 percent from its recent high on May 8, reflecting speculation that the tech industry will suffer in the wake of an economic downturn. A drop of 10 percent or more is considered a full-fledged correction, which is an interruption of the general bull market trend.

However, while the market could rebound from a correction, it also means that a bear market — in which stocks decline 20 percent or more — also is a possibility. Neither the Dow nor the S&P 500 are near the 10 percent losses needed for a correction.

And whether stocks will continue their slide depends largely on the Fed’s opinion of upcoming inflation data, said Joseph Battipaglia, chief investment officer at Ryan, Beck & Co. The Fed has indicated its determination to fight inflation by extending its rate tightening, even at the sake of economic growth.

“What everyone has to focus on is where profits will come from in the future,” Battipaglia said. “Natural expansion of the economy will allow profit to expand modestly. On the other hand, if rate hikes continue and a recession is looming, then earnings will fall off and stocks will become expensive.”

Declining issues outpaced advancers by more than 4 to 1 on the New York Stock Exchange, where consolidated volume of 2.34 billion shares trailed the 3.32 billion shares that changed hands Friday.

Bonds were flat, with the yield on the 10-year Treasury note unchanged at 4.98 percent from late Friday. Meanwhile, the 2-year Treasury yield rose to 5.02 percent; the inversion of yields signaled the bond market’s increased expectations of an economic slowdown.

The U.S. dollar advanced on the Japanese yen and was mixed against European currencies, while gold prices lingered at about $610 an ounce.

Crude futures dropped amid relief that the first major tropical storm of the year was expected to miss Gulf Coast refineries. A barrel of light crude fell $1.27 to $70.36 on the New York Mercantile Exchange.

In corporate news, Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. tumbled $3.60 to $62.01 despite its upbeat second-quarter earnings. Rival Goldman Sachs Group Inc. was expected to release its results Tuesday; its shares fell $4.89 to $145.

General Motors Corp. said late Friday that Delphi Corp., its former parts maker, struck a broad employee buyout plan that lowers the risk of a potentially crippling strike. GM climbed 43 cents to $25.78.

Mirant Corp. said it withdrew its nearly $8 billion offer for rival energy supplier NRG Energy Inc., saying the company was unwilling to consider the deal. NRG plunged $3.93 to $46.92, while Mirant lost 7 cents to $24.38.

Elsewhere in the energy sector, hedge fund Jana Partners LLC proposed an acquisition of Houston Exploration Co. for $62 per share, or about $1.8 billion. Houston Exploration surged $3.32 to $57.97.

The Russell 2000 index of smaller companies dropped 18.20, or 2.59 percent, to 683.19.

Overseas, Japan’s Nikkei stock average rose 0.56 percent. Britain’s FTSE 100 lost 0.61 percent, Germany’s DAX index drooped 1.25 percent and France’s CAC-40 was lower by 0.94 percent.