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Stocks close nearly flat ahead of key Senate vote

The U.S. financial markets saw some relative calm Wednesday as investors uneasily awaited a Senate vote on the banking bailout plan.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The U.S. financial markets saw some relative calm Wednesday as investors uneasily awaited a Senate vote on the banking bailout plan, with Wall Street falling only moderately and the credit markets still showing signs of strain.

The Dow Jones industrials zigzagged during the session, losing more than 200 points in early trading but closing down about 20 — far from the huge swings the blue chips saw during the first two sessions of the week.

Many investors were reluctant to make any major moves before the vote expected Wednesday night on a revised version of the plan defeated earlier this week by the House. The new proposal includes tax breaks for businesses and the middle class and increases deposit insurance.

While they waited, the markets absorbed economic data that was a reminder of the impact of the credit crisis that is now more than a year old. In an assessment of the manufacturing sector in September, the Institute for Supply Management revealed a troubling drop in new orders, which portends a continuing slowdown in the months ahead. The trade group's overall index of manufacturing activity fell to 43.5 in September from 49.9 in August. Wall Street had expected a reading of 49.5, according to economists polled by Thomson/IFR.

"We're now seeing in those numbers that we're getting a contraction in economic activity," said Jim Dunigan, managing executive of investments at PNC Wealth Management.

At this point in the credit crisis, weak economic numbers are coming as no surprise to Wall Street — but September's data are expected to be particularly bleak, reflecting the seizing up of the credit markets that began during the month. If the markets don't show signs of relaxing soon, the reports may well motivate more investors to pull money out of stocks.

"We've taken the credit markets for granted much like you do the electricity coming on every day but in this particular case the power grid is down," said Dunigan. "If we don't have a functioning credit market banks aren't lending to each other — credit is dried up. That ultimately affects economic activity."

Nervousness about debt has made banks hesitant to extend loans; banks have preferred to hold onto their cash. But some analysts and policymakers are worried that drop in lending will curtail economic growth. And the fear paralyzing the credit markets is making it more difficult and expensive for some companies to fund their day-to-day operations, putting basics like payroll at risk.

Anglo-Swiss mining giant Xstrata PLC said Wednesday it was dropping a $10 billion bid for rival Lonmin PLC because of uncertainty about access to credit. And industrial products maker Actuant Corp. lowered its sales outlook because of the credit market distruption.

The London Interbank Offered Rate, or Libor, on overnight dollar loans dropped to 3.79 percent on Wednesday from Tuesday's record 6.88 percent. Libor measures how much banks are charging one another to borrow. Many consumer lending rates, including about half of all U.S. adjustable-rate mortgages, are tied to Libor.

But overnight Libor remains well above the target Fed funds rate of 2 percent, showing that banks are still tending to hoard their cash rather than lend it.

Demand for the safety of government debt increased Wednesday. The yield on the benchmark 10-year Treasury note, which moves opposite its price, fell to 3.74 percent from 3.83 percent late Tuesday. The yield on the 3-month T-bill, the safest type of investment, fell to 0.79 percent from 0.88 percent late Tuesday. The decline in yields indicates that investors are willing to accept even modest returns to protect their money.

Financial markets likely will remain nervous until voting on Capitol Hill is complete. The Dow fell 19.59, or 0.18 percent, to 10,831.07. The blue chip index fell 778 points Monday, its steepest drop in years, after lawmakers rejected the bailout plan, then rallied 485 points Tuesday on hopes party leaders would find the votes to pass the measure.

Broader stock indicators were narrowly lower. The Standard & Poor's 500 index fell 5.30, or 0.45 percent, to 1,161.06, and the Nasdaq composite index fell 22.48, or 1.07 percent, to 2,069.40.

Light, sweet crude fell $2.11 to settle at $98.53 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange after the government reported a surprise increase in U.S. crude supplies. The dollar was mixed against other major currencies, while gold prices rose.

The Commerce Department reported that construction activity was unchanged in August, although spending for residential projects saw its first increase in 17 months, a welcome upturn amid the housing downturn. Wall Street had expected construction activity to decline 0.5 percent.

In corporate news, Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway Inc. unveiled a plan to buy $3 billion worth of General Electric Co. preferred shares, even as the diversified conglomerate is preparing to sell at least $12 billion worth of common stock to the public. The company's stock closed unchanged at $9.45.

Berkshire also received warrants to buy $3 billion worth of common shares at $22.25 each over five years. GE said the Berkshire funds will boost its capital position and permit it to make opportunistic investments if they arise.

Meanwhile, sales of U.S. and foreign automakers tumbled last month amid economic worries, tighter credit, and high gasoline prices. Ford Motor Co., Toyota Motor Corp. and Chrysler LLC all posted drops of more than 30 percent in September.

Ford fell 65 cents, or 12.5 percent, to $4.55; and Toyota dropped $1.90, or 2.2 percent, to $83.90.

Declining issues outnumbered advancers by about 5 to 4 on the New York Stock Exchange, where consolidated volume came to 5.59 billion shares from 5.84 billion on Tuesday.

The Russell 2000 index of smaller companies fell 7.99, or 1.18 percent, to 671.59.