Wall Street closed mostly lower Tuesday after a dip in oil prices failed to keep investors from fretting over the economic effects of high energy costs.
Crude oil’s retreat below $132 a barrel did encourage some investors to search for bargains in stocks created by recent plunges. The financial sector, for one, saw strong demand after taking a beating Monday when Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. reported a larger-than-expected quarterly loss.
But the overall stock market was volatile, with investors flummoxed about the direction of the economy. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke late Monday said that while a substantial downturn seems unlikely, inflation risks are growing. His remarks raised expectations that the central bank might hike interest rates later this year to curb inflation; more expensive borrowing could jeopardize an economic rebound.
And although investors got some temporary relief from the oil market Tuesday, they remain concerned that high energy prices will not just aggravate inflation, but also stymie consumer spending and, in turn, economic growth.
“If you bet against the consumer over the past several years, you would’ve been wrong. The consumer has held up surprisingly well. However, at some point there is a breaking point. I think some people believe we may be approaching that,” said Chris Colarik, a portfolio manager at Glenmede Investment Management in Philadelphia.
It is possible oil will stay high for some time. The International Energy Agency lowered its global oil demand prediction Tuesday, but also said oil-producing nations outside OPEC are having a tough time keeping up with demand.
The Dow Jones industrial average rose 9.44, or 0.08 percent, to 12,289.76, after moving in and out of positive territory throughout the day.
Broader stock indicators declined. The Standard & Poor’s 500 index fell 3.32, or 0.24 percent, to 1,358.44, and the Nasdaq composite index fell 10.52, or 0.43 percent, to 2,448.94.
Declining issues outnumbered advancers by nearly 2 to 1 on the New York Stock Exchange, where volume came to 1.37 billion shares.
Bond prices fell. The yield on the benchmark 10-year Treasury note, which moves opposite its price, rose to 4.10 percent from 3.99 percent late Monday.
Crude dropped $3.04 to settle at $131.31 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange.
The dollar rose against other major currencies, while gold prices tumbled.
The Fed has been worried that elevated commodities prices might curb consumers’ appetite to buy discretionary items. This would pose a serious threat to the U.S. economy, and to other nations’ economies as well.
“There has been meaningful concern raised around the world about the uncorking of inflation,” said Joseph V. Battipaglia, chief investment officer at Ryan Beck & Co.
He added that data out of Japan and Europe have been suggesting weakness in those countries, and that foreign stock markets — particularly China’s — have been stalling. Economic slowdowns abroad, coupled with ongoing bank troubles, rising bond yields, and uncertainty over the Fed’s next move, are leaving investors with little incentive to buy stocks.
“We haven’t plumbed new lows yet,” Battipaglia said. “But the summer can be very nasty.”
Many investors have been banking on the weak dollar boosting exports and thereby fueling the economy. But the Commerce Department reported the U.S. trade deficit had a larger-than-expected jump in April, as higher oil prices and increased oil consumption offset a climb in exports.
The biggest gainers among the 30 Dow companies were Coca-Cola Co., which was upgraded by an analyst Tuesday, and Citigroup Inc., which rebounded from a decline Monday. Coca-Cola rose $2.15, or 3.9 percent, to $58.01, while Citigroup rose 66 cents, or 3.4 percent, to $20.26.
The biggest loser in the Dow was Chevron Corp. which lost ground as oil prices sank. Chevron fell $2.42, or 2.4 percent, to $98.78.
The Russell 2000 index of smaller companies fell 2.63, or 0.36 percent, to 732.62.
Bernanke’s comments caused selling overnight in Asia, where the Nikkei 225 average closed 1.1 percent lower. Britain’s FTSE 100 index closed down 0.86 percent, Germany’s DAX index gave up 0.65 percent, and France’s CAC-40 declined 0.80 percent.