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Economic worries weigh on Wall Street

Wall Street closed Monday narrowly mixed, as investors tried to assess the health of the economy following a lackluster sales report from Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and news of weak consumer spending last month.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Wall Street closed Monday narrowly mixed, as investors tried to assess the health of the economy following a lackluster sales report from Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and news of weak consumer spending last month.

Wal-Mart’s disappointing sales added to concerns that arose Friday with the report that the country’s economy, as measured by gross domestic product, was estimated to have risen a lower-than-expected 1.6 percent in the third quarter. That sent stocks sliding at the end of a week in which the Dow Jones industrial average had set new closing records for four straight sessions.

Building on investors’ economic concerns, the Commerce Department reported that consumer spending rose an anemic 0.1 percent in September, the smallest increase in 10 months. Personal income, however, was up 0.5 percent. Hopes for a strong holiday season have driven up shares of retailers and stocks overall in recent months.

“Personal spending was less than expected but then personal income was better than expected,” said Stuart Freeman, chief equity strategist for A.G. Edwards & Sons. He contends investors will grapple with sometimes negative and seemingly contradictory economic data as they try to determine whether the economy will pull off a soft landing after the Federal Reserve’s 17 straight interest rate increases that ended in July.

The Dow Jones industrial average closed the day down 4 points, or 0.03 percent, while the broader Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index added a fraction of a point, or 0.04 percent, and Nasdaq composite index gained 13 points, or 0.6 percent.

Light, sweet crude tumbled in trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange amid renewed doubts about whether OPEC would push through production cuts. Oil prices showed gains last week, and at times pushed down stock prices, after traders grew more confident that production cuts would take hold.

Bonds were little changed, with the yield on the benchmark 10-year Treasury note flat at 4.68 percent from late Friday. The dollar was mixed against other major currencies, while gold prices rose.

The markets appeared to dismiss comments Monday from Richmond Federal Reserve President Jeffrey Lacker, who said he was concerned about inflation. Arthur Hogan, chief market analyst at Jefferies & Co., said Lacker’s remarks reiterated previous statements and weren’t surprising given the role he has played as lone dissenter in recent decisions by the Fed.

Hogan said asset managers are likely to continue to plow money back into the stock market as they work to meet their year-end return projections.

“That really becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy,” he said, referring to an overall rise in the markets through the end of the year. Still, he believes the market is ripe for periodic profit-taking.

Hogan contends that the rise in personal income last month bodes well for the coming holiday season and doesn’t see Wal-Mart’s sales results as a sign that retailers over all will see a disappointing holiday period.

Wal-Mart fell after reporting same-store sales, or sales at stores open at least a year, rose 0.5 percent in October, the smallest increase in nearly six years. The world’s largest retailer had forecast sales would increase 2 percent to 4 percent.

Given Wal-Mart’s size and reach, the retailer is viewed by many investors as a measure of consumer sentiment. So, given the fact that two-thirds of economic growth is driven by consumers, a weak sales report for the discounter tends to make the stock market uneasy.

Earnings news continued Monday, with Verizon Communications Inc. reporting a stronger-than-expected third-quarter profit amid robust results from Verizon Wireless. However, Verizon stock was off amid concern about weakness in its wired operations.

Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. was up slightly after announcing plans to close a plant in Texas; workers went on strike three weeks ago to protest plans to shut the plant.

Trustreet Properties Inc., jumped after GE Capital Solutions, a unit of General Electric Co., agreed to acquire the real-estate investment trust in a deal valued at $3 billion.

BE Aerospace Inc., which makes airplane interiors, rose after its third-quarter profit more than tripled amid increased demand and a tax benefit.

Overseas, Japan’s Nikkei stock average closed down 0.09 percent. Britain’s FTSE 100 closed down 0.39 percent, Germany’s DAX index was down 0.03 percent and France’s CAC-40 was down 0.63 percent.