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Stocks tumble amid interest rate fears

Wall Street retreated Thursday after housing data showed sales surged in April by the largest amount in 14 years, damping hopes that an interest rate cut would be needed to stimulate the economy.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Wall Street retreated Thursday after housing data showed sales surged in April by the largest amount in 14 years, damping hopes that an interest rate cut would be needed to stimulate the economy.

Investors were originally enthusiastic after the Commerce Department reported sales of single-family homes rose 16.2 percent last month after falling slightly in March. Even though the report indicated that the economy continues to expand, investors became unnerved by a record drop in home prices.

With first-quarter corporate earnings reports mostly in, Wall Street is again placing increased significance on economic data. Reports Thursday suggested the Federal Reserve might be successfully steering the economy toward a soft landing and that a rate cut might not be needed.

“Sometimes good is bad,” said Scott Fullman, director of investment strategy for Israel A. Englander & Co. “This takes away the anticipation that the Fed is going to ease interest rates because of the housing market.”

He also said that after a months-long run, and before a three-day holiday weekend, that investors were taking a breather to collect profits.

According to preliminary calculations, the Dow Jones industrial average fell 84.52, or 0.62 percent, to 13,441.13. The shift in the direction of the Dow and the other major indexes Thursday was pronounced. The Dow rose nearly 100 points to 13,624.55 early in the session — eclipsing its previous trading high of 13,609.75 reached Wednesday — before pulling back.

Broader stock indicators fell. The Standard & Poor’s 500 index fell 9.96, or 0.65 percent, to 1,512.32, and the Nasdaq composite index fell 30.09, or 1.17 percent, to 2,546.96.

Bond prices rose modestly after falling sharply early in the session with the release of the housing data. The yield on the benchmark 10-year Treasury note fell to 4.85 percent from 4.86 percent late Wednesday.

Oil prices backed off a nine-month peak reached on Wednesday as traders weighed a rebound in U.S. crude inventories last week. A barrel of light, sweet crude fell $1.44 to $64.33 on the New York Mercantile Exchange.

The dollar was higher against most other major currencies, while gold prices declined.

The moves in stocks followed fresh economic data. The housing report came after data released by the department earlier Thursday that showed sales of big-ticket manufactured goods posted a modest increase in April, perhaps signaling a continued rebound in business spending. The durable goods report suggested U.S. companies are in the midst of growing, and aren’t afraid to spend money to do so.

In addition to new home sales and durable goods, Wall Street received a weekly Labor Department report showing the number of newly laid off workers filing for unemployment benefits rose slightly last week — but was still at a level reflective of a healthy labor market.

The economic reports failed to give Wall Street a sustained push. All three major indexes have been under pressure this week, especially on Wednesday when former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan said he expects a contraction in China’s markets.

His comments caused stocks to reverse gains and close lower Wednesday. They also caused declines in Asian markets — particularly in China, which reached record levels this week.

On Thursday, China’s two biggest stock indexes closed lower as the market regulator issued another warning about market risks, with auto and power stocks losing ground. The benchmark Shanghai Composite Index closed down 22.58 points at 4,151.13; the Shenzhen index fell 32.80 points to 711.17.

Elsewhere overseas, Japan’s Nikkei stock average fell 0.05 percent. Britain’s FTSE 100 fell 0.77 percent, Germany’s DAX index fell 0.50 percent and France’s CAC-40 fell 1.17 percent.

In corporate news, housing stocks were among the market’s best performers as the Commerce Department data showed sales ramped up last month, albeit as prices fell. Even Toll Brothers Inc. — which reported second-quarter profit fell sharply — rose 30 cents to $30.07.

Takeover activity also was a factor. Bausch & Lomb Inc. rose $3.76, or 5.7 percent, to $70.21 after Advanced Medical Optics Inc. confirmed it launched a takeover bid. Bausch & Lomb set a 52-week high of $70.85, surpassing a previous high of $67.71. Last week, Bausch & Lomb agreed to be acquired by private equity group Warburg Pincus for about $3.67 billion.

Advanced Medical shares tumbled $1.34, or 3.2 percent, to $41.10.

Network Appliance Inc. fell $6.30, or 16.6 percent, to $31.76 after the storage technology company reported a slowdown in March will yield weaker-than-expected second-quarter results.

Mylan Laboratories Inc. fell 41 cents, or 2 percent, to $19.83 after costs tied to its takeover of Matrix Laboratories Ltd. hurt fourth-quarter results.

Declining issues outnumbered advancers by about 4 to 1 on the New York Stock Exchange, where volume came to 1.77 billion shares compared with 1.6 billion shares traded Wednesday.

The Russell 2000 index of smaller companies fell 12.74, or 1.52 percent, to 823.80.