- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 31, 2005

NEW YORK (AP) — Stocks sagged yesterday, ending a lackluster quarter in negative range as investors weighed rising U.S. incomes and consumer spending against lofty oil prices, which rose after an investment bank’s suggestion that energy was in the early stages of a bull market.

The report from Goldman Sachs warned oil was entering a “super spike” period that could drive prices as high as $105 per barrel, but many on Wall Street were skeptical about the call. The only thing that could take crude to such high levels would be a major disruption in supply from Iran, Iraq or Saudi Arabia, which seems unlikely at this point, said Tracy Herrick, chief economist for the Private Bank of the Peninsula, in Palo Alto, Calif.

The report seemed to have an impact on trading, nonetheless; crude futures surged $1.41 to $55.30 per barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange — difficult for stock investors to ignore.

“The important thing today, the only thing of significance, is the oil figure,” Mr. Herrick said. “That is the most troubling thing for the market because it has a long-term negative effect on the economy and could act as a drag on profits. Everything else indicates the economy is in glide path for continued strength. The increases in interest rates so far have had no impact on the economy, so that’s not an issue. Oil is the issue.”

The Dow Jones Industrial Average was down 37.17, or 0.35 percent, at 10,503.76, pressured in part by American International Group Inc. and Johnson & Johnson. The Dow lost 2.59 percent during the first three months of 2005.

The broader gauges were also lower for the day and the year. The Standard & Poor’s 500 index slipped 0.82, or 0.07 percent, to 1,180.59, ending its worst quarter since 2002 with a 2.59 percent loss. The Nasdaq Composite Index fell 6.44, or 0.32 percent, to 1,999.23, down 8.10 percent since the year began.

The Nasdaq posted the steepest loss for the month, as well, sliding 52.49 points, or 2.56 percent. The Dow sank 262.47 points in March, or 2.44 percent, and the S&P; declined 23.01 points, or 1.91 percent.

Treasuries rallied for a third day, with the yield on the 10-year note dropping to 4.48 percent, from 4.55 percent late Wednesday. The U.S. dollar fell against other major currencies. Gold prices rose.

Hiring gains sent U.S. incomes up by 0.3 percent in February, but consumer spending climbed at an even faster 0.5 percent pace, the Commerce Department reported. Further gains in incomes and consumer spending are expected in the months ahead.

Separately, orders to U.S. factories rose by 0.2 percent in February as strong demand for commercial aircraft, steel and computers offset a drop in demand for new cars and industrial machinery. The gain was weaker than the 0.5 percent increase that many economists had been expecting, but it still represented an improvement after no change at all in January orders.

The Labor Department reported that the number of Americans filing new claims for unemployment benefits rose to its highest level in 11 weeks, up 20,000 to 350,000 last week. However, the broader, four-week moving average remains low enough to suggest continued job creation. Wall Street expects today’s job creation report to show about 220,000 new jobs for March.

On the Dow, AIG slid $1.75 to $55.41 after a second bond rating agency cut the insurance holding company’s premium AAA ranking amid a swelling investigation of accounting irregularities.

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