- The Washington Times - Friday, June 3, 2005

NEW YORK (AP) — Wall Street finished a disheartening week sharply lower yesterday after a government report showing the slowest job growth in nearly two years exacerbated concerns about the health of the economy. Steadily climbing oil prices, which topped $55 per barrel, helped push the major indexes to losses for the week.

Investors were disappointed in the Labor Department’s non-farm payroll report, which said only 78,000 jobs were created in May, down significantly from the 274,000 new jobs in April and far less than the 185,000 economists had forecast. It was the worst showing for the monthly payroll report since August 2003.

However, some investors speculated that the jobs report, along with other data this week showing a slowdown in economic growth, would prompt the Federal Reserve to halt its policy of raising interest rates sooner than expected.

“The big take-away here is that this increases the likelihood that the Fed will move to the sidelines sooner rather than later,” said Michael Sheldon, chief market strategist at Spencer Clarke LLC. “Otherwise, there are a lot of mixed signals on the economy right now, which makes it difficult to forecast.”

The Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 92.52, or 0.88 percent, to 10,460.97.

Broader stock indicators also lost ground. The Standard & Poor’s 500 index was down 8.27, or 0.69 percent, at 1,196.02, and the Nasdaq composite index lost 26.37, or 1.26 percent, to 2,071.43.

Oil prices rose, more than making up for a decline on Thursday, as investors feared stronger-than-expected global demand. A barrel of light crude settled at $55.03, up $1.40, on the New York Mercantile Exchange.

The climb in oil prices and increasing economic uncertainty pressured stocks throughout the week, though the markets showed surprising resistance to profit-taking earlier in the week. For the holiday-shortened week, the Dow lost 0.77 percent, the S&P; fell 0.23 percent and the Nasdaq dropped 0.21 percent.

Treasury bond yields sank to their lowest levels since March 2004 in early trading yesterday as the disappointing jobs report spurred more buying by investors hedging against a sluggish economy. However, those unattractive bond yields led to a selloff as the session wore on, and the yield on the 10-year Treasury note rose to 3.98 percent from 3.90 percent late Thursday.

The dollar rose against the euro as Italy’s labor minister suggested a voter referendum to abandon the euro and bring back the lira, but the greenback was mixed against other major currencies. Gold prices rose sharply.

Adding to the disappointing jobs report, the Institute for Supply Management’s services index came in at 58.5 for May, down from 61.7 in April and less than the 60 reading Wall Street had expected. A reading above 50 indicates expansion.

The ISM’s manufacturing report earlier this week was among the other discouraging economic figures that sent stock prices falling.

With the economic data mixed at best and, at worst, showing a faster slowdown in growth than many had expected, the pressure will be on Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan to justify continually raising the nation’s benchmark interest rate, which stands at 3 percent, when he testifies on Capitol Hill about the economy Thursday.

“This jobs figure has completely changed the debate on interest rates,” said Jack Ablin, chief investment officer at Harris Private Bank in Chicago. “It went from the Fed pausing at around 3.5 to 4 percent, to maybe a three-and-a-quarter to 3.5 percent pause.”

The Fed has raised rates by a quarter percentage point at each of its last eight meetings. The Fed’s Open Market Committee, which sets rates, meets again June 29-30.

In corporate news, L-3 Communications Holdings Inc. climbed $3.12 to $74.15 after the company announced it would purchase fellow technology contractor Titan Corp. for $1.97 billion in cash, or $23.10 per share, and assume $680 million in Titan debt. Titan lost 32 cents to $22.47.

U.S. spirits maker Constellation Brands Inc. is reportedly firming up a $14 billion counter-bid for British rival Allied Domecq PLC, which has already had a takeover bid from French firm Pernod Ricard. Allied Domecq rose 27 cents to $51.13 on the news, while Constellation was up 46 cents at $28.03.

Intel Corp. lost 26 cents to $27.33 even though two brokerage houses lifted their quarterly revenue and profit forecasts for the Dow component, citing strong sales of notebook microprocessors and rising demand in Asia. Intel is scheduled to issue its mid-quarter update next week.

Apple Computer Inc. agreed to distribute $50 vouchers to as many as 2 million IPod owners — which could cost up to $100 million — to settle a class action suit over the IPod’s battery life. A Goldman Sachs analyst report also noted higher IPod inventories, leading to questions about whether the must-have gadget has started to decline in sales. Apple dropped $1.80 to $38.24.

Declining issues outnumbered advancers by about 9 to 7 on the New York Stock Exchange, where preliminary consolidated volume came to 1.63 billion shares, compared with 1.81 billion traded on Thursday.

The Russell 2000 index of smaller companies was down 4.94, or 0.79 percent, at 620.30.

Overseas, Japan’s Nikkei stock average rose 0.18 percent. In Europe, Britain’s FTSE 100 was down 0.11 percent, France’s CAC-40 lost 0.51 percent for the session, and Germany’s DAX index fell 0.48 percent in late trading.

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