IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Stocks close mixed on housing concerns

Stocks finished an erratic week narrowly mixed Friday after a government report of a steep decline in new home sales stirred concerns that the housing crisis will continue to dog the economy.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Stocks finished an erratic week narrowly mixed Friday after a government report of a steep decline in new home sales stirred concerns that weakness in housing will continue to dog the economy.

The Commerce Department report that new home sales fell 9 percent from October to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 647,000 triggered renewed nervousness that consumers could become uneasy and tamp down their spending.

Stocks, which fell more than 1 percent Thursday following unwelcome economic readings and the assassination of Pakistani opposition leader Benazir Bhutto, fluctuated through the day Friday. The Chicago purchasing managers' index had for a time offered some support to investor sentiment Friday after it showed a stronger-than-expected increase for December manufacturing activity in the Midwest.

But Wall Street appeared unable to hold onto its enthusiasm for too long. Investors are eager for any economic data that can help illuminate whether weakness in the housing and financial sectors is undercutting the overall economy, possibly leading to a recession.

Quincy Krosby, chief investment strategist at The Hartford, contends the news from growth in Midwest manufacturing to the weak housing report could have an outsize effect on stocks because of the session's light volume.

"What you have is a very thinly traded market so any news, whether it's good news or bad news, can skew the market actually quite dramatically one way or the other," she said.

The Dow Jones industrial average rose 6.26, or 0.05 percent, to 13,365.87, after bobbing higher and lower throughout the session.

Broader stock indicators were mixed. The Standard & Poor's 500 index rose 2.12, or 0.14 percent, to 1,478.49, and the Nasdaq composite index fell 2.33, or 0.09 percent, to 2,674.46.

Advancing issues narrowly outnumbered decliners on the New York Stock Exchange, where volume came to a light 1.03 billion shares.

Bond prices rose sharply as investors looked for the assurances of U.S.-backed investments. The yield on the 10-year Treasury note, which moves opposite its price, fell to 4.08 percent from 4.19 percent late Thursday. The dollar was mixed against other major currencies, while gold prices rose.

Light, sweet crude fell 62 cents to settle at $96 per barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange. Rising prices in recent days have renewed talk of breaching the psychological benchmark of $100. Oil hit a peak of $99.29 on Nov. 21.

Friday's economic readings painted a mixed picture, lending little help to stocks, which have been unable to carry out an end-of-the-year rally due to concerns that the economy will start contracting.

The pace of sales of new homes in November proved much weaker than economists had been expecting. Wall Street had predicted sales would drop about 1.8 percent to a pace of 715,000.

In a more optimistic sign for the economy, the purchasing managers index, considered a precursor of the national Institute for Supply Management report being released Wednesday, rose to 56.6 from 52.9 in November. Economists, on average, had been expecting a showing of 52.0, according to Dow Jones Newswires.

But the Chicago PMI's December employment index fell to 49.0 from 54.4 in the prior month. Wall Street regards solid employment as the crucial underpinning of the economy's well-being because it feeds consumer spending, which accounts for more than two-thirds of U.S. economic activity.

Krosby said the turmoil in Pakistan following the assassination of the country's former prime minister Benazir Bhutto could make investors leery of holding big positions heading into a holiday weekend.

While the markets are open Monday, many investors are likely to stay home ahead of New Year's Day.

"I don't think that anyone at this stage wants to stake out a new position," she said.

In corporate news, a New York state regulator said Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway will receive a license to open a bond insurance business in the state. Berkshire Hathaway said Friday it agreed to buy NRG N.V., the reinsurance unit of ING Group said for about $435.7 million in cash.

Genesco Inc. jumped $5.44, or 16.5 percent, to $38.50 after a judge ruled The Finish Line Inc. cannot back out of its $1.5 billion purchase of Genesco. Finish Line fell 75 cents, or 24.6 percent, to $2.30.

The Russell 2000 index of smaller companies fell 1.75, or 0.23 percent, to 771.76.