- The Washington Times - Monday, April 18, 2005

NEW YORK (AP) — Wall Street finished mixed yesterday as investors coming off last week’s hard sell-off faced an uncertain economy that presented strong first-quarter earnings and a pair of merger announcements.

Stocks struggled to find a bottom after three straight triple-digit drops in the Dow Jones Industrial Average, but sharply fluctuating prices and the lack of a solid recovery rally spoke to investors’ continued nervousness about the possibility of inflation in the middle of a projected slowdown in economic growth.

“After you see a decline of the magnitude we saw Friday, you’d expect some degree of recovery, but we’re not seeing much, and that’s very uninspiring,” said Hugh Johnson, chairman and chief investment officer of Johnson Illington Advisors. “This makes me believe that we may have further to go before we find a bottom here.”

The Dow fell 16.26, or 0.16 percent, to 10,071.25 after losing 420 points the past three sessions.

Broader stock indicators edged higher. The Standard & Poor’s 500 index was up 3.36, or 0.29 percent, at 1,145.98, and the Nasdaq Composite Index gained 4.77, or 0.25 percent, to 1,912.92.

Oil prices moved in and out of negative territory, adding to Wall Street’s uncertainty. A barrel of light crude closed at $50.37, down 12 cents, on the New York Mercantile Exchange. Bonds were lower after last week’s rally, with the yield on the 10-year Treasury note rising to 4.27 percent from 4.24 percent late Friday. The dollar fell against most major currencies, while gold prices rose.

The volatility and lighter volume in stocks were due in part to a pair of economic reports coming later in the week — Tuesday’s Producer Price Index, which measures wholesale price increases, and its retail counterpart, the Consumer Price Index, on Wednesday. Many analysts have projected slower economic growth for the second half of the year — and if the reports point to a rise in prices, slower growth could turn into no growth.

“These are very important reports, and it’s not surprising that investors would pay considerable attention to them,” said Jack Caffrey, equities strategist at J.P. Morgan Private Bank. “This will forecast the state of the economy and what the Federal Reserve might do with interest rates, and it’s not surprising investors would be skittish taking large positions in front of that.”

Inflation worries have dogged the markets since early March, when it appeared the Dow might reach the 11,000 mark. Now, with the Dow threatening to fall below 10,000 for the first time since Oct. 26, investors are looking to economic data and the Fed’s May 3 meeting for signs of improvement and a better read on the economy and interest rates. The Fed is expected to raise the nation’s benchmark interest rate by a quarter percentage point to 3 percent at the meeting.

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