- The Washington Times - Monday, May 24, 2004

NEW YORK (AP) — A renewed rise in oil prices stifled a rally on Wall Street yesterday, leaving stocks mixed and investors worrying that oil will climb further despite Saudi Arabia’s vow to boost production.

Even if the Persian Gulf kingdom can ramp up production, higher supplies aren’t likely to reach the United States in time for the peak summer driving season. On the other hand, higher prices at the gas pump could put a damper on the nation’s economic growth and make it more likely that the Federal Reserve will delay interest rate increases.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 8.31, or 0.08 percent, to 9,958.43.

In addition to investors’ economic concerns, the blue chips were pulled down by the sharp drop in Altria Group shares after a federal judge ruled the Department of Justice will be able to seek the disgorgement of tobacco industry profits as part of its suit against Philip Morris USA and other cigarette makers. Altria closed down $4.37, or nearly 9 percent, at $44.95.

Broader market indexes closed up. The Standard & Poor’s 500 index advanced 1.85, or 0.17 percent, to 1,095.41, while the Nasdaq Composite Index was up 10.89, or 0.6 percent, at 1,922.98.

Barry Berman, head trader for Robert W. Baird & Co. in Milwaukee, said that despite some positive news on oil, investors lacked direction.

“I think the market is basically wrestling with the fact that it’s had a good correction and that a lot of the selling is over with, based on the news we know,” Mr. Berman said. “But I think it is waiting for some good news to get going on the upside.”

He noted that volume was light ahead of Memorial Day; that tends to magnify market movements.

Investors looking for good news initially bid up stocks in reaction to the weekend pledge by Saudi Arabia — the world’s largest crude oil exporter — to increase its output by up to 2 million barrels a day.

U.S. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham said Sunday that Saudi Arabia has promised to pump an additional 600,000 barrels a day starting in June, lifting its daily output to 9.1 million barrels.

Saudi officials also agreed to meet market demand up to their full capacity of 10.5 million barrels going forward, he said.

But analysts worried that it would take time for the kingdom to boost production, and there were signs other members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries were angered by the Saudi’s intention to go it alone after the cartel rejected calls for higher production.

In fact, crude oil futures ended up 4.5 percent yesterday at their highest settlement in more than 20 years of trade on the New York Mercantile Exchange. Nymex crude futures for July delivery closed at $41.72 a barrel, surpassing the previous high of $41.55 of a week ago.

That helped boost energy shares. BJ Services Co. was up $1.85 at $42.03; Apache Corp. rose $1.71 to $40.68; and Amerada-Hess Corp. advanced $2.25 to $72.01.

But the sharp upward moves in oil unsettled investors.

“Whether it’s professional investors or Joe Sixpack, it’s an alarming event when it used to cost you $20 to fill your car and it now costs you $30,” said Arthur Hogan, chief market analyst at Jefferies & Co.

He added, however, it’s likely most concerns about the broader economy will not be eased by a Saudi move.

Gainers yesterday included Lucent Technologies, which announced plans to buy Telica, a privately held Internet phone service provider, for $295 million in stock and options. Lucent shares rose 6 cents, or 1.9 percent, to $3.25.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. shares fell 23 cents to $54.86 after the world’s largest retailer said its sales for May are on track with expectations.

SBC Communications Inc. was down 17 cents at $24.16, with the phone service provider and a union representing striking workers reporting limited progress in negotiations.

Campbell Soup Co. declined $1.15, or more than 4 percent, to $25.25. The company announced a 10 percent rise in its third-quarter profits, in line with analysts expectations.

Advancing issues outnumbered decliners 5 to 2 on the New York Stock Exchange.

Consolidated NYSE volume came to 1.49 billion shares, down from 1.55 billion Friday.

The Russell 2000 index of smaller companies was up 5.91, or more than 1 percent, at 551.72.

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