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Stocks thumped amid profit woes

Wall Street moved sharply lower Wednesday, as investors, digesting dozens of earnings reports, decided third-quarter results hadn’t met their lofty expectations.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Investors sent stocks tumbling Wednesday, showing their dissatisfaction with third-quarter earnings after several pharmaceutical companies failed to meet Wall Street’s expectations. The Dow Jones industrials skidded more than 140 points.

Disheartening results and less than dazzling forecasts prompted a sell-off in several sectors, notably health care and technology. Analysts said investors were feeling let down after a month of bidding stocks higher in anticipation of a robust quarter.

“We’ve had plenty of reason for profit-taking, and it’s all because of these earnings,” said Todd Clark, head of listed equity trading at Wells Fargo Securities. “We had a pretty nice rally and now people are looking to take their money off the table.”

The Dow finished down 149, or 1.5 percent.

The broader gauges were also lower. The Nasdaq composite index dropped 43, or 2.2 percent. The Standard & Poor’s 500 index fell 16, or 1.5 percent.

Overall, the more than 200 companies that reported earnings in the last two weeks have either met or beaten analyst expectations, but investors have dumped stocks at even the slightest hint of negativity — including dimming outlooks for the fourth quarter and next year. The market’s sharp response to Wednesday’s reports suggests fund managers may be trying to book profits, said Scott Wren, equity strategist for A.G. Edwards & Sons.

“When I see a market reaction like this today, it’s telling me there’s some churning in some big accounts,” Wren said. “People have a pretty quick trigger finger these days.”

Analysts blamed some of the decline in the Dow on a disappointing report from Merck & Co. Large pharmaceutical companies, which investors depended on for predictable earnings during the economic downturn, are likely to lose their appeal during the recovery, said Kevin Caron, market strategist at Ryan, Beck & Co.

“Investors have come to rely on pharmaceuticals for growth in revenue and pipeline, but those growth rates are slowing,” said Caron, whose firm reduced its stake in health care last month in favor of technology, industrial and material goods stocks. “That’s going to be an additional challenge for those companies going forward.”

Merck, which missed analysts’ forecasts by 3 cents a share and announced plans to cut about 4,400 jobs, declined $3.20, or 6.5 percent, to $45.71. Other pharmaceutical companies reporting earnings Wednesday also fell.

Schering-Plough Corp., stung by slumping sales and the loss of patent protection for its one-time blockbuster allergy drug Claritin, missed expectations and declined 89 cents, or 5.6 percent, to $15.11. Wyeth also missed Wall Street’s forecast, in part due to charges related to its diet drug litigation. It was down $2.19, or 4.8 percent, at $43.61.

Amgen Inc., which reversed a third-quarter loss on strong sales of an anemia treatment for cancer patients, beat analyst expectations by 2 cents a share in results released Tuesday, but failed to impress the market. Morgan Stanley cut its rating to “equal-weight” from “overweight,” and the bio-tech firm dropped $3.15, or 4.95 percent, to $60.50.

Investors also punished Inc., which beat analysts’ expectations by a penny a share but narrowed its earnings forecast for next year. The online retailer, which was downgraded by several brokerages, declined $4.78, or 8.1 percent, to $54.57.

Advancers included Lucent Technologies, which reported a quarterly profit for the first time since 2000. The telecommunications firm was up 33 cents, or 13.47 percent, at $2.78.

Declining issues outnumbered advancers nearly 3 to 1 on the New York Stock Exchange. Volume came to 1.25 billion shares, compared with 1.09 billion traded at the same point Tuesday.

The Russell 2000 index, which tracks smaller company stocks, declined 8.55, or 1.6 percent, to 516.98.

Overseas, Japan’s Nikkei stock average finished 1.3 percent lower Wednesday. In Europe, France’s CAC-40 dropped 1.8 percent, Britain’s FTSE 100 declined 1.5 percent and Germany’s DAX index lost 2.5 percent.