- The Washington Times - Monday, August 23, 2004

NEW YORK (AP) — A disappointing sales forecast from Wal-Mart Stores Inc. sent stocks mostly lower yesterday as investors worried that oil prices, which stabilized after last week’s highs, would curb consumer spending and hurt companies’ third-quarter earnings. Tech stocks eked out minimal gains.

Wal-Mart’s warning about lower-than-expected August sales squelched the market’s enthusiasm over falling oil prices. With its reach among consumers, Wal-Mart is seen as a barometer of an already-struggling retail sector — and even the economy as a whole.

“I think you can make the case that Wal-Mart is related to oil, since oil prices have acted as a kind of tax on consumers that has restricted their spending,” said Joseph Keating, chief investment officer at AmSouth Asset Management in Birmingham, Ala. “I think this plays into people’s concerns that earnings will be impacted. But we’re also seeing oil fall, and barring some sort of major supply disruption, I think they’ll continue to fall.”

October contracts for a barrel of light crude were quoted at $46, down 72 cents, on the New York Mercantile Exchange. With oil topping $49 per barrel last week, the downturn could encourage risk-tolerant investors to return to the market. However, very light volume meant most investors were sitting out Wall Street’s traditional summer doldrums.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped 37.09, or 0.4 percent, to 10,073.05.

Broader stock indicators were narrowly mixed. The Standard & Poor’s 500 index fell 2.67, or 0.2 percent, to 1,095.68, and the tech-focused Nasdaq Composite Index was up 0.68, or 0.04 percent, at 1,838.70.

Wal-Mart lowered its August sales forecasts, citing lower back-to-school sales and lost business in Florida from Hurricane Charley. Sales at stores open at least a year — a standard for assessing a retailer’s strength — are now expected to range from flat to 2 percent higher. Wal-Mart fell 85 cents to $53.80.

The retailer’s outlook adjustment gave pessimists the chance to adjust their portfolios and take money out of the market, analysts said. Most investors, however, remained on the sidelines, and little movement in stocks was expected this week because of the Republican National Convention next week and the release of key employment data Sept. 3.

“Wal-Mart certainly has been the catalyst for people to reduce their exposure to stocks,” said Hugh Johnson, chief investment officer at First Albany Corp. “Certainly, there are some worries out there that this will affect earnings in the third and fourth quarters. But we won’t get a true reading on what’s going to happen until after next week.”

Wall Street was pleased with FedEx Inc.’s upbeat outlook, seeing the improved forecast as a sign that higher energy costs would not pressure quarterly earnings as much as previously feared. FedEx gained $1.65 to $80.95 after raising its outlook for its first quarter and full 2005 earnings, crediting strong international express and ground shipments.

Toys R Us Inc. was up 43 cents at $16.04 after earning 28 cents per share for the quarter, thanks to one-time tax benefits. The company missed analysts’ revenue forecasts by nearly $100 million, however, and posted an operating loss as well.

World Wrestling Entertainment Inc. saw its first-quarter earnings more than double, thanks to strong home video and pay-per-view sales of its wrestling extravaganzas. WWE, which lowered its outlook for fiscal 2005, dropped 24 cents to $11.66.

Kmart Holding Corp. completed the sale of 18 stores to the Home Depot Inc. for $271 million, allowing the discount retailer to continue consolidating its stores while giving the home-improvement retailer room to grow. Kmart slipped 10 cents to $76.45, while Home Depot slid 36 cents to $36.00.

Declining issues outnumbered advancers by nearly 8 to 5 on the New York Stock Exchange, where preliminary consolidated volume came to 1.29 billion shares, compared with 1.46 billion on Friday.

The Russell 2000 index of smaller companies was down 4.45, or 0.8 percent, at 543.47.

Overseas, Japan’s Nikkei stock average rose 0.7 percent. In Europe, Britain’s FTSE 100 closed up 0.8 percent, France’s CAC-40 gained 1.5 percent for the session, and Germany’s DAX index surged 1.6 percent.

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