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Stocks close down on recession fears

Stocks slipped Wednesday after Intel Corp. announced disappointing earnings and JPMorgan Chase & Co. offered some relief for investors concerned about the health of banks.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Wall Street staggered through another volatile session Wednesday, finally closing mostly lower after a Federal Reserve report showed some economic growth at the end of 2007 and after Intel Corp.'s disappointing profit report.

Stocks gave up a modest rally in the final 20 minutes of trading, continuing the fluctuations seen throughout the session as investors combed corporate profit reports and economic news that supported varying views about the soundness of the economy.

Stocks initially gained after the Fed report — its Beige Book survey of regional economies — suggested economic activity increased modestly from mid-November through December, though at a slower pace than in a previous survey.

The report seemed to quell some concerns about prospects for the economy that took on fresh urgency after Intel Corp. issued disappointing earnings after the closing bell Tuesday.

The Fed's report bolstered enthusiasm among bullish investors who pointed to better-than-expected results from JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Wells Fargo & Co. The banks' reports appeared to remind Wall Street that while the fallout of souring loans was widespread, it wasn't necessarily evenly felt. And buyout news in the tech sector also gave a boost to sentiment.

"I think the market is trying to find some kind of a correction point," said Subodh Kumar, global investment strategist at Subodh Kumar & Assoc. in Toronto. "The talk on Wall Street has been about recession. Maybe the Beige Book has underscored that the U.S. is in a slowdown but that it doesn't look like precipitous one."

The Dow Jones industrial average fell 34.95, or 0.28 percent, to 12,466.16.

Broader stock indicators also fell. The Standard & Poor's 500 index declined 7.75, or 0.56 percent, to 1,373.20, and the Nasdaq composite index fell 23.00, or 0.95 percent, to 2,394.59.

Investors remained edgy Wednesday, particularly after a drop Tuesday that took the Dow down nearly 280 points. Predictions by some economists that a recession is at hand have rattled Wall Street in recent weeks.

Intel was by far the biggest decliner among the 30 stocks that make up the Dow and also weighed on the tech-dominated Nasdaq. The chip maker fell 70 cents, or 12.4 percent, to $19.88.

Advancing issues narrowly outpaced decliners 2 on the New York Stock Exchange, where volume came to 2.11 billion shares compared with 1.53 billion traded Tuesday.

Bond prices fell. The yield on the benchmark 10-year Treasury note, which moves opposite its price, rose to 3.73 percent from 3.68 percent late Tuesday. The dollar fell against most other major currencies — hitting a 2 1/2-year low against the yen — but rose against the euro. Gold prices, which have hit record levels in recent sessions, eased.

Intel's failure to meet forecasts for the fourth quarter, along with first-quarter projections that came in at the low end of analysts' predictions, weighed on technology stocks. Earlier this week, there was market speculation that the technology sector, which sometimes benefits from a weak dollar and overseas strength, might be able to better withstand an economic slowdown in the U.S.

The tech arena did see some cheer Wednesday, thanks to Oracle Corp.'s deal to buy BEA Systems Inc. for about $7.85 billion. Last year BEA rejected a less expensive bid from Oracle, which raised its offer but not to the level sought by BEA.

Kumar contends markets will remain jumpy as Wall Street sorts out its concerns about the economy as well as the troubles with bad debt.

"Volatility will probably remain high into midyear because analyst expectations are coming down quite rapidly and we're in the eye of the storm as far as credit write-downs go for banks," he said.

Beyond the Beige Book, which arrived two weeks before the Fed's next meeting, other economic news added to Wall Street's concerns. The Labor Department also said inflation jumped by the highest amount in 17 years in 2007 amid a spike in energy and food costs. Excluding those areas, so-called core inflation remained relatively stable.

Consumer prices in December rose 0.3 percent, while core inflation showed a 0.2 percent advance. Analysts had expected both figures to rise 0.2 percent, according to Thomson/IFR.

The Fed, in setting monetary policy, is known to pay closer attention to the core rate. In any case, investors appear more worried about the prospect of slower growth than that of higher inflation.

In addition, Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke already has sent strong signals that another rate cut is on the way. The Fed's next monetary policy meeting is Jan. 29-30, though some investors have debated whether the central bank would step in and cut rates before then.

The Fed said Wednesday that output at the nation's factories, mines and utilities was flat in December. Wall Street had expected industrial production to show a 0.2 percent decline. The reading wasn't necessarily downbeat. Had output risen, it could have reassured some investors about the state of the economy but also perhaps stirred concerns about inflation.

JPMorgan offered a first-quarter earnings report that revealed relatively light exposure to the faltering subprime loans as it booked a write-down of $1.3 billion, which was smaller than the massive losses of peers like Citigroup Inc. Citi on Tuesday said it swung to a loss of nearly $10 billion in the fourth quarter after booking a write-down of $18.1 billion for bad bets tied to the mortgage industry.

Despite its relatively strong results, JPMorgan warned of difficult conditions this year and said problems with home equity loans dented profits and underscored mounting pressures in consumer lending. JPMorgan rose $2.26, or 5.8 percent, to $41.43, while Citi, fell 70 cents, or 2.6 percent, to $26.24 after losing 7.6 percent Tuesday. Both JPMorgan and Citi are components of the Dow.

Wells Fargo revealed its first decline in profits in more than six years and also cited rising losses on home equity loans. But the company, one of the nation's largest banks, largely sidestepped the write-downs that many other banks have been forced to make. Wells Fargo rose 88 cents, or 3.3 percent, to $27.37.

BEA Systems Inc. jumped $2.88, or 19 percent, to $18.46 after word of its deal. Oracle rose 61 cents, or 3 percent, to $21.92.

The Russell 2000 index of smaller companies rose 2.48 percent, or 0.36 percent, to 699.91.