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Oil, inflation fears keep stocks in limbo

Wall Street ended a listless session with stocks nearly flat Thursday as rising oil prices and inflation fears — and a dose of indecision — kept most investors on the sidelines of the market.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Wall Street ended a listless session with stocks nearly flat Thursday as rising oil prices and inflation fears — and a dose of indecision — kept most investors on the sidelines of the market.

A new batch of data showed that the economy’s rapid growth might be cooling a little, giving a few risk-tolerant investors an impetus to return to buying.

But with oil prices still trading at near-record highs, many investors were dogged by concerns over how quickly and how high the Federal Reserve would raise interest rates to combat inflation. The tentative mood kept stocks fluctuating in a narrow trading band.

“I think what is happening is the markets are trying to sense whether there is a building inflation story or whether they should focus on the earnings, which have been very good,” said Subodh Kumar, chief investment strategist for CIBC World Markets. “That’s why you’re seeing this extreme volatility on smaller moves, like the rise in oil prices.”

The Dow Jones industrial average closed Thursday’s seesaw session down 0.07 point, or nearly flat at 9,937.64.

Broader stock indices barely moved. By the close, the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index had gained 0.51 point, finishing up 0.1 percent at 1,089.19, while the technology-rich Nasdaq composite index was down 1.58 points, or 0.1 percent, at 1,896.59.

The labor market, another key factor in any Fed decision on interest rates, remained somewhat strong even as jobless claims climbed. Initial jobless claims rose by 12,000 to 345,000 for the week ending May 15. While economists had forecast 326,000 first-time unemployment filings for the week, the higher number was still seen as a positive for a labor market that had suffered heavily in 2003.

Investors concerned with an overheating economy were mollified as the Conference Board issued a lower-than-expected increase in its Index of Leading Economic Indicators. The index, which predicts the strength of the economy up to six months ahead, rose 0.1 percent in April. Economists had been expecting a 0.2 percent rise.

In the end, however, the various readings and opinions will only keep stocks in a broad range until the Fed acts and the effect on inflation can be seen.

“What’s struggling to occur is a consensus of opinion of what really is going to happen,” said Hans Olsen, managing director and chief investment officer at Bingham Legg Advisers. “When you lack consensus, you have higher volatility.”

A new merger in networking led tech shares slightly higher. Network company Tellabs Inc. announced it would acquire Advanced Fibre Communications Inc. for $1.9 billion in cash and stock. Tellabs was down $1.24 at $7.95, while AFC gained $2.13 to $18.96.

Personal finance software company Intuit Inc. showed a 12 percent gain in sales for the first quarter, beating analysts’ earnings estimates by 4 cents per share, but warned of slower business growth ahead. Intuit plunged $4.49 to $38.28.

Shoe retailer Foot Locker Inc. was down 9 cents at $21.11 after posting a 26 percent increase in profits after Wednesday’s session. The company met Wall Street expectations, crediting new store openings with a 5.1 percent increase in sales.

Rival pet supply retailers PetSmart Inc. and Petco Animal Supplies Inc. also announced earnings. PetSmart reported surging profits that beat analysts’ estimates by 3 cents per share, while Petco’s higher-margin sales and store expansion allowed the company to beat expectations by 2 cents per share. PetSmart rose $2.14 to $28.40, while Petco gained 8 cents to $28.61.

Advancing issues outnumbered decliners by about 4 to 3 on the New York Stock Exchange, where volume came to a slow 1.2 billion shares, compared with 1.54 billion at the same point Wednesday.

The Russell 2000 index of smaller firms was down 0.11 points, or 0.02 percent, at 540.75 by the close. Overseas, Japan’s Nikkei average fell 1 percent Thursday. Britain’s FTSE 100, Germany’s DAX and France’s CAC-40 all closed with a loss of 0.9 percent.