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Stocks close mixed amid inflation worry

Stocks finished mixed in another volatile session Thursday after a spike in wholesale prices touched off inflation concerns and partially overshadowed a strong increase in retail sales.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Stocks finished another volatile session mixed on Thursday after a spike in wholesale prices touched off inflation concerns and partially overshadowed a strong increase in retail sales last month.

Despite the uneven economic news, an upbeat forecast from Honeywell International Inc. propped up the Dow Jones industrial average.

Wall Street, which has this week paid close attention to steps by the Federal Reserve to stoke greater movement in moribund credit markets, again looked to economic data for signals about the health of the economy.

In one unwelcome development, prices at the wholesale level jumped 3.2 percent in November — their biggest increase in 34 years — after a steep rise in wholesale gasoline prices. But the news wasn't all bad. The Commerce Department said retail sales rose in November by the largest amount in six months, and a Labor Department report showed a drop in new claims filed by those seeking jobless benefits.

The modest movement came as investors further examined the Fed's agreement with the European Central Bank and the central banks of England, Canada and Switzerland to combat what it described as elevated pressures in the credit markets.

Scott Fullman, director of investment strategy for I. A. Englander & Co. in New York, said investors struggled with the day's economic readings as well as the Fed's actions.

"It's definitely a mixed picture. People are still digesting what came from the Fed. You put this all together and it gives you a healthy dose of volatility," he said. "I really don't think anybody is saying 'I'm very confident to get into this market.'"

The Dow rose 44.06, or 0.33 percent, to 13,517.96, after being down nearly 120 points at one point in the session.

Broader stock indicators showed smaller moves and finished mixed. The Standard & Poor's 500 index edged up 1.82, or 0.12 percent, to 1,488.41, while the Nasdaq composite index declined 2.65, or 0.10 percent, to 2,668.49.

Declining issues outnumbered advancers by about 2 to 1 on the New York Stock Exchange, where volume came to 1.29 billion shares compared with 1.59 billion shares traded Wednesday.

The market's back and forth trading has likely kept some uneasy investors out of the market, said Robert Schaeffer, vice president of Becker Capital Management Inc. in Portland, Ore. He pointed to relatively light trading volumes of late as evidence of hesitation by some investors.

"You don't like to stick you neck out because the S&P may be down 30 points in the next five minutes. It makes people hesitant to invest."

Bond prices fell. The yield on the benchmark 10-year Treasury note, which moves opposite its price, jumped to 4.20 percent from 4.06 percent late Wednesday. The dollar was mixed against other major currencies, while gold prices fell.

The mixed economic readings came in a week already made busy by the Fed's decision Tuesday to lower interest rates for the third time this year and its announcement a day later of the liquidity plan. Investors since have been debating the effectiveness of the measures.

A slowdown in the housing market remains a concern for Wall Street, as do spiking mortgage defaults that have made banks hesitant to lend to one another amid uncertainty about who might be holding bad debt. The Fed's actions are aimed at easing the logjam.

The producer price index, which measures inflation at the wholesale level, rose 3.2 percent in November, according to the Labor Department. But excluding the often-volatile food and energy sectors, inflation rose by 0.4 percent. While the Fed generally looks at inflation figures excluding food and energy costs, a sharp rise in overall inflation could make it harder for the central bank to continue cutting interest rates.

And retail sales jumped 1.2 percent in November, double the increase economists had expected. In October, the increase had been a much weaker 0.2 percent.

In corporate news, Honeywell gained after forecasting 16 percent to 21 percent growth in earnings per share for 2008. Analysts polled by Thomson Financial had been expecting a 17 percent increase. Honeywell, one of the 30 stocks that comprise the Dow industrials, rose $2.91, or 5 percent, to $60.65.

JetBlue Airways Corp. jumped 90 cents, or 14 percent to $7.15 after German airline Deutsche Lufthansa AG said it plans to pay $300 million for a 19 percent stake in JetBlue.

The Russell 2000 index of smaller companies fell 2.25, or 0.29 percent, to 769.46.

Concerns about the effectiveness of central banks' plans to loosen the world's credit markets weighed on stock markets abroad. Britain's FTSE 100 fell 2.98 percent, Germany's DAX index lost 1.83 percent, and France's CAC-40 fell 2.65 percent. In Asia, Japan's Nikkei stock average fell 2.48 percent on the day.