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Stocks end trading day with modest losses

Stocks fell Wednesday on renewed concerns about Greece's debt crisis and as weaker oil prices hurt energy shares.
/ Source: The Associated Press

A late-day slide broke the stock market's calm Wednesday after concerns grew that shares are overheated.

A disappointing drop in consumer borrowing and a slide in oil prices hit a market that analysts said has been looking tired. The Dow Jones industrial average fell 72 points after repeated attempts this week to cross the psychological threshold of 11,000. It hasn't been above that level in 18 months.

It was the Dow's biggest drop since Feb. 23. It had been down by as much as 125 points during the day, its first triple-digit slide since February.

Analysts said the market has been due for a break after two months of steady gains. The benchmark Standard & Poor's index reached an 18-month high on Tuesday. It had risen 12.6 percent in just two months.

The market found some support in afternoon trading following strong demand at a government bond auction. That sent interest rates lower following a spike on Monday.

The drop in stocks resumed in the final hour of trading, however, after the Federal Reserve said consumer borrowing fell by $11.5 billion in February. Analysts had expected a modest gain of $500 million. The drop, resulting from weakness in credit cards and auto loans, raised concerns that consumer spending will remain weak.

Stocks started the day weaker after Greece's borrowing costs rose again and its stock market slid on concerns that the country could default on its debt. Greece's financial woes have undermined confidence in Europe's shared currency, the euro, and caused jitters on world markets.

Even with the setbacks triggered by Greece's fiscal crisis, U.S. stocks have been on a nearly unbroken climb for 13 months. The past two months of gains have come mainly from modest moves upward, in contrast to the triple-digit gains that were common early in the market's recovery. Investors have been encouraged by a string of reports showing steady improvement in the economy, including a report Friday that U.S. employers created 162,000 jobs in March, the most in three years.

Mike Shea, managing partner at Direct Access Partners LLC in New York, said the market needed to digest the recent climb by pulling back. "To me, good markets behave like this," he said.

The Dow fell 72.47, or 0.7 percent, to 10,897.52. The Dow had flirted with the 11,000 level in recent days, but hadn't crossed it. It came within 12 points of 11,000 on Monday and Tuesday before retreating.

The Standard & Poor's 500 index fell 6.99, or 0.6 percent, to 1,182.45, while the Nasdaq composite index fell 5.65, or 0.2 percent, to 2,431.16.

Mark Coffelt, portfolio manager at Empiric Funds in Austin, Texas, said the drop in stocks is likely to be modest because so many investors are waiting to put money in the market.

"We're probably a little overdue for a correction," Coffelt said. "I think it's going to be pretty light as much of the public is underinvested."

The government's auction of $21 billion in 10-year notes saw stronger demand than at other auctions this year. The 10-year note is used as a benchmark for many consumer loans. Bond yields have been rising in recent weeks, which has pushed interest rates higher.

The yield on the benchmark 10-year Treasury note, which moves opposite to its price, fell to 3.87 percent from 3.96 percent late Tuesday. On Monday, its yield climbed above 4 percent for only the second time since October 2008.

The concern has been that if rates rise too fast, it could slow the economic recovery. The Mortgage Bankers Association said the average rate on 30-year, fixed-rate mortgages surged to 5.31 percent last week from 5.04 percent a week earlier.

Denis Amato, chief investment officer at Ancora Advisors in Cleveland, said a rise in rates could stall the stock market's climb. He noted that historically stocks continue to rise when rates start to creep up because the ease in demand for safety holdings is a sign that investors feel more confident about the economy.

If rates continue to climb, however, concern builds that higher borrowing costs will slow a recovery.

"Eventually it catches up and they recognize that, well yeah, things are getting better but it's going to mean higher rates," Amato said.

The dollar rose against other major currencies. Gold rose.

Crude oil fell 96 cents to $85.88 per barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange after hitting an 18-month high on Tuesday.

The drop in oil hurt energy stocks. Exxon Mobil Corp. fell 56 cents, or 0.8 percent, to $67.34, while Occidental Petroleum Corp. fell $2.19, or 2.5 percent, to $86.30.

About two stocks fell for every one that rose on the New York Stock Exchange, where volume came to 1.2 billion shares compared with 936.2 million Tuesday.

The Russell 2000 index of smaller companies fell 2.02, or 0.3 percent, to 699.46.

Britain's FTSE 100 dropped 0.3 percent, Germany's DAX index fell 0.5 percent, and France's CAC-40 lost 0.7 percent. Investors are concerned that debt problems in Greece and other European countries could upend a global economic recovery.

Japan's Nikkei stock average rose 0.1 percent. Japan's central bank said it would hold its key interest rate steady, and that it sees a recovery taking hold. Asian shares also rose after the World Bank boosted its growth forecast for developing economies in East Asia.