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Stocks end mixed amid economic jitters

Stocks finished mixed as lackluster economic reports offered Wall Street little incentive to place big bets ahead of a long weekend.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Stocks finished mixed as lackluster economic reports offered Wall Street little incentive to place big bets ahead of a long weekend.

Disappointing data on manufacturing, consumer confidence and import prices reminded investors on Friday that the economy is struggling. As a result, a week that began with a rally closed on a subdued note.

A New York Federal Reserve survey on regional manufacturing indicated that conditions have deteriorated this month, while the preliminary Reuters/University of Michigan survey on consumer sentiment for February showed a marked decline from the prior month. A Labor Department report found that import prices have jumped amid higher oil prices.

Friday’s market declines, while not severe, occurred a day after investors’ revealed their skittishness about the economy and sent stocks down more than 1 percent. The pullback, which came after strong gains earlier in the week, followed somewhat downcast remarks about the economy from Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke.

With stock markets closed Monday for the Presidents Day holiday and fresh economic concerns, investors appeared uninterested in making any sizable moves.

“The fear factor still sits in the minds of investors,” said Bill Schultz, chief investment officer at McQueen, Ball & Associates in Bethlehem, Pa. “We just can’t get over that hurdle.”

The Dow Jones industrial average fell 28.77, or 0.23 percent, to 12,348.21. The blue-chip index ended the week with a gain of 1.36 percent.

Broader stock indicators were mixed. The Standard & Poor’s 500 index edged up 1.13, or 0.08 percent, to 1,349.99 to finish the week with a 1.40 percent gain. The technology-heavy Nasdaq composite index fell 10.74, or 0.46 percent, to 2,321.80 to close the week with an advance of 0.74 percent.

Government bond prices rose. The yield on the benchmark 10-year Treasury note, which moves opposite its price, fell to 3.77 percent from 3.82 percent late Thursday. The dollar was mixed against other major currencies, while gold prices fell.

Light, sweet crude oil edged up 4 cents to settle at $95.50 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange.

Not all economic findings that arrived Friday portended further weakness but, over all, investors seemed unimpressed. The nation’s central bank said that industrial output showed a modest increase last month, as expected, largely because of strength from utilities.

But investors remain worried that consumers who are uneasy will be reluctant to open their wallets — an alarming prospect as consumer spending accounts for more than two-thirds of economic activity.

Comments from Bernanke on Thursday outlined the concerns. The Fed chief issued a sobering but not entirely unexpected prediction that economic growth in much of 2008 is likely to be “sluggish” before gathering strength later in the year. He told the Senate Banking Committee that further losses were likely at banks from soured mortgages.

“What’s dominating the market lately is the bad economic data that continues to confirm that the economy is slowing,” said Alexander Paris, economist and market analyst for Chicago-based Barrington Research. Though he said we are not necessarily in a recession, more and more economists are coming to that conclusion.

Schultz of McQueen, Ball & Associates predicted that volatility will remain on Wall Street as investors try to sort through their concerns about the financial sector.

The uncertainty lapping at Wall Street is due in part to the opaque nature of subprime mortgage debt. Many of these loans, which are now going bad, were sold off in exotic debt packages whose worth is difficult to determine. The concerns about faltering debt have stoked worries about the solvency of bond insurers and sent some borrowing costs higher, disturbing normally staid parts of the financial sector that help pedal the economy.

In corporate news, Inc. said its fourth-quarter earnings more than doubled amid a 62 percent increase in gross travel bookings. The online travel company jumped $21.83, or 21 percent, to $124.06.

Declining issues outnumbered advancers by about 9 to 7 on the New York Stock Exchange. Consolidated volume came to 3.36 billion shares, down from 3.64 billion on Thursday.

The Russell 2000 index of smaller companies fell 3.80, or 0.54 percent, to 701.52.

Overseas, Japan’s Nikkei stock average finished down 0.03 percent. Britain’s FTSE 100 closed down 1.56 percent, Germany’s DAX index fell 1.87 percent, and France’s CAC-40 fell 1.79 percent.

For the week
The Dow Jones industrial average ended the week up 166.08, or 1.36 percent, at 12,348.21. The Standard & Poor’s 500 index finished up 18.70, or 1.40 percent, at 1,349.99. The Nasdaq composite index ended the week up 16.95, or 0.74 percent, at 2,321.80.

The Russell 2000 index finished the week up 2.62, or 0.37 percent, at 701.52.

The Dow Jones Wilshire 5000 Composite Index — a free-float weighted index that measures 5,000 U.S. based companies — ended Friday at 13,652.73, up 165.78 points, or 1.23 percent, for the week. A year ago, the index was at 14,733.65.