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Nervousness about inflation sinks Wall Street

/ Source: The Associated Press

Wall Street’s chronic inflation fears sent stocks skidding Tuesday, as a sharp jump in wholesale prices overshadowed strong profit reports from several companies in the Dow Jones industrial average. Heavy selling in the energy sector also pressured the major indexes.

Better-than-expected earnings from Johnson & Johnson, IBM Corp. and United Technologies Corp. were overlooked by investors preoccupied by the biggest increase in the Labor Department’s Producer Price Index in 15 years. The PPI, which measures prices at the wholesale level, rose 1.9 percent in September on high energy and food costs. With those costs removed, “core” PPI rose 0.3 percent, still higher than the 0.2 percent expected on Wall Street.

While a drop in crude oil futures may have mitigated those inflation concerns, they may have also contributed to a sharp sell-off in oil stocks, most notably Dow component Exxon Mobil Corp. A barrel of light crude settled at $63.20, down $1.66, on the New York Mercantile Exchange.

Aside from the energy sector, analysts said, the selling was relatively moderate, and that many investors seemed to be standing pat, rather than selling off completely.

“It’s not that people are saying, ’get me out of this market,’ but there’s enough headwinds out there that makes it tough to say, ’I want to own this market,” said Jay Suskind, head trader at Ryan Beck & Co. “There’s stocks to buy, there’s sectors to buy, there’s news every day. But it’s hard to jump in here right now with a lot of money.”

The Dow Jones industrial average finished the day down 62.84 points, or 0.6 percent, while the broader Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index was down 11.96 points, or 1 percent. The Nasdaq composite index, full of technology stocks, declined 14.30 points, or 0.7 percent.

In recent weeks, Fed officials have expressed concern over rising oil prices, both in terms of fueling inflation and hampering economic growth. Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan, in Tokyo for a speech Tuesday, said the jump in energy prices “will undoubtedly be a drag (on the economy) from now on.”

With wholesale prices rising, the Fed is likely to continue to raise rates through the end of the year, according to Hugh Johnson, chairman and chief investment officer at Johnson Illington Advisors.

“The fear in the marketplace is that the Fed is going to be seduced by this inflation data into raising rates too high,” Johnson said. “And while earnings are good right now, earnings won’t be good in 2006 if rates go too high.”

Strong profits at Dow component Johnson & Johnson led a steady stream of positive earnings reports, though the market appeared somewhat unreceptive. The healthcare conglomerate saw a 12 percent jump in profits, led by higher medical device sales. Johnson & Johnson, which beat Wall Street profit forecasts by a penny, slipped 3 cents to $62.97.

IBM gained 89 cents to $83.48 after posting a slight decline in profits that nonetheless beat analysts’ expectations by 13 cents per share. The key earnings report, which excluded its recently sold personal computer business, was seen evidence of the success of the company’s restructuring efforts.

Manufacturer United Technologies saw positive growth across its diversified businesses, particularly in its Carrier heating and air conditioning division, which boosted profits by 19 percent from a year ago. United Technologies nonetheless lost $1.16 to $49.95.

Fellow manufacturer 3M Corp. jumped $2.24 to $74.71 as the company not only beat Wall Street forecasts by 4 cents per share, but raised its outlook for the fourth quarter — a strong statement considering the increasingly dire forecasts for the economy.

Earnings at Wall Street firm Merrill Lynch & Co. rose 49 percent to a new quarterly record, and the company exceeded profit expectations by 22 cents per share on the strength of its proprietary investments. Merrill Lynch rose 12 cents to $61.21.

The energy sector fell along with crude prices. Exxon Mobil, easily the most active issue on the NYSE after a block of 24 million shares were sold on the market at 1 p.m., lost $2.56 to $56.30, while rival Chevron Corp. dropped $2.66 to $57.29.

Overseas, Japan’s Nikkei stock average fell 0.36 percent. In Europe, Britain’s FTSE 100 closed down 0.43 percent, France’s CAC-40 dropped 0.63 percent for the session, and Germany’s DAX index lost 0.64 percent.