- The Washington Times - Friday, February 14, 2003

NEW YORK, Feb. 14 (UPI) — Stock prices on the New York Stock Exchange and the Nasdaq Stock Market were mixed in cautious pre-holiday trading at midday Friday as investors digested chief weapons inspector Hans Blix’s comments on Iraq.

Markets in the United States will be closed on Monday for the President’s Day holiday. Trading will resume on Tuesday.

The blue-chip Dow Jones industrial average, which eased 8.30 points Thursday, was down 6.60 points to 7,743.20. The tech-heavy Nasdaq composite index, which slipped 1.53 points in the previous session, was ahead 3.63 points to 1,281.07.

The broader New York Stock Exchange composite index was ahead 3.32 to 4,656.57, the Standard & Poor’s 500 index was down 0.50 to 816.87, the American Stock Exchange composite index was down 0.27 points to 807.91 and the Wilshire 5000 Index was ahead 22.47 to 7,774.53.

Big Board volume inched up to an estimated 619.40 million shares from 616.30 million shares changing hands during the same period Thursday. Nasdaq volume rose to 573.20 million shares from 509.40 million shares changing hands during the previous session.

Analysts said stocks fluctuated as investors tried to decipher how a report from the chief United Nation’s weapons inspector on Iraq’s cooperation might play out with regard to support for U.S. military action there.

Experts said the markets went on a roller coaster ride, rising slightly and rallying firmly once Hans Blix began speaking and indicated that Iraq is being cooperative.

Analysts said stocks rose after Blix told the U.N.’s Security Council that no weapons of mass destruction have to date been found in Iraq — but that many items remain unaccounted for.

The chairman of the U.N. Monitoring, Verification and Inspections Commission told the council that Iraq was cooperating on many points but failed to account for many dangerous weapons programs Baghdad once ran.

The main problem, Blix said, was locating chemical weapons such as the deadly VX nerve agent Iraq was known to have in 1998 but are not on the Iraqi declaration.

“The results to date have been consistent with Iraqi declarations that it possesses no weapons of mass destruction,” Blix told the council.

In the 11 weeks of inspections, Blix said his team has conducted 400 checks on 300 sites. Blix said Iraq continued to grant unfettered access. But he reiterated his concerns that many weapons systems were not accounted for.

Blix told the council that his team’s ability to check for illegal weapons was improving: new regional offices were getting up and running, and Iraq was cooperating by allowing its eighth helicopters to patrol the no-fly zone without minders, and had reduced the number of minders during inspections.

Meanwhile, analysts said some reassuring earnings news from technology bellwether Dell Computer and software maker Nvidia helped keep stocks trading higher, lifting spirits among investors crushed in the last month as the Dow industrials fell more than 1,100 points.

Analysts noted investors largely shrugged off several economic reports on business inventories, industrial production, and consumer sentiment, focusing instead on the Blix report.

The Federal Reserve said industrial production, a key measure of work done by factories, mines and utilities, jumped 0.7 percent in January, its largest rise in six months.

The Fed said the rise, which was the largest since the same 0.7 percent increase posted back in July of last year, was paced by a 4.9 percent gain in the assembly of autos and parts.

Most economists were expecting industrial production to rise 0.3 percent during the month.

The Fed also reported the plant in use rate improved to 75.7 from 75.4 percent in December, which was the lowest since last March.

Economists had expected the ratio to rise to 75.6 percent during the month.

The Commerce Department said business inventories posted their eighth straight monthly gain in December, rising 0.6 percent as companies replenished their stockpiles to keep pace with consumer demand.

Economists were expecting inventories to rise 0.2 percent during the month.

The report also showed the inventory-to-sales ratio, a gauge of the time goods sit on store shelves, inched up to 1.37 months from 1.36 months in November.

Consumers’ assessment of the economy flagged in the middle of February amid weakening expectations about the future, according to the University of Michigan’s preliminary report on consumer sentiment for February.

The report was said to have shown a decrease to 79.2 from 82.4 in January, according to people in the market who saw the report. The University of Michigan releases its report only to subscribers.

The mid-February sentiment index was weaker than the 82 reading expected by economists.

The consumer-expectations index was said to have fallen to 68.8 in mid-February from 72.8 in January.

Meanwhile, the early reading on the current-conditions index for February was said to have shown a decrease to 95.2 from 97.2 in January.

Consumer confidence gauges have been under pressure recently from the stagnant status of the jobs market, miserable stock-market performance, the prospect of war in Iraq and terrorism in the U.S.

But Federal Reserve officials repeatedly have stated that they are more concerned about what consumers do with their money rather than what they say about the economy.

Meanwhile, U.S. Treasury prices drifted lower. The 10-year bond fell 12/32 to 99 20/32. Its yield, which moves in the opposite direction of its price, rose to 3.92 percent from 3.88 percent late Thursday.

In Europe, stock prices ended higher in light trading in London, Frankfurt and Paris. The London International Stock Exchange’s blue-chip FTSE-100 index gained 27.1 points, or 0.8 percent, to 3,637.9. The German DAX index rose 101.76 points, or 3.9 percent, to 2,657.03 and the French CAC-40 index rose 69.10 points, or 2.5 percent, to 2,827.75.

Analysts said European stocks drew support from the comments from Blix and the early gains on Wall Street.

In Asia, prices on the Tokyo Stock Exchange ended higher in busy options related trading, lifted by a favorable reading on Japan’s economy. The Nikkei Stock Average, which slipped 64.51 points Thursday, gained 102.26 points, or 1.2 percent, to 8,701.92. The key index rose 3 percent in value during the holiday shortened trading week.

Analysts said stocks were lifted as investors digested news that Japan’s October-December gross domestic product grew at a price-adjusted 0.5 percent from the previous quarter, handily beating the consensus forecast for a 0.3 percent contraction.

Prices ended slightly higher on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange. The blue-chip Hang Seng Index, which lost 141.47 points in the previous session, added 28.33 points, or 0.3 percent, to 9,201.76.

Prices ended fractionally lower in moderate trading on the South Korean Stock Exchange. The Korean Composite Stock Price Index, or Kospi, which lost 7.62 points during the previous session, slipped 0.43 points to 575.24.

Prices also ended slightly lower on the Taiwan Stock Exchange. The key Weighted Index, which lost 116.91 points during its previous session, slipped 13.97 points, or 0.3 percent, to 4,493.99 — its lowest level in six weeks.

Prices ended slightly higher on the Singapore Stock Exchange. The key Straits Times Index, which lost 27.64 points during the previous session, rose 5.15 points, or 0.4 percent, to 1,273.48.

Stocks ended at a new 3-year low on the Australian Stock Exchange in moderate trading. The blue-chip All Ordinaries Index, which fell 46.60 points during the previous session, lost another 16.10 points, or 0.6 percent, to 2,804.40.

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