- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 3, 2005

NEW YORK (AP) — Oil prices that topped $55 per barrel pressured stocks yesterday, leaving the major indexes mixed despite upbeat retail sales and strong economic news.

But considering the huge rise in crude oil futures, the stock market responded surprisingly well, with only the Nasdaq Composite Index posting a loss resulting from volatility in the semiconductor sector. A barrel of light crude for April delivery was quoted at $53.57, up 52 cents, on the New York Mercantile Exchange. Crude rose as high as $55.20 in intraday trading — a new four-month high.

“Energy prices, in my opinion, aren’t moving on fundamentals, they’re being driven by speculators,” said Michael Sheldon, chief market strategist at Spencer Clarke LLC. “In this environment, it’s difficult to predict the direction of the market.”

Some investors refrained from making large bets before today’s job-creation report from the Labor Department.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average gained 21.06, or 0.19 percent, to 10,833.03.

The broader gauges were mixed. The Standard & Poor’s 500 Index rose 0.39, or 0.03 percent, to 1,210.47, while the Nasdaq was down 9.10, or 0.44 percent, at 2,058.40.

Some of the pressure on the tech-heavy Nasdaq, which has lagged the other indexes since the first of the year, came from the volatile chip sector. The Philadelphia Semiconductor Index, which was down 1.27 percent for the session, has either fallen or advanced at least 1 percent each of the past five sessions, reflecting a great deal of uncertainty among technology investors.

Meanwhile, a favorable revision on worker productivity eased inflation worries and helped bonds rally briefly, though the soaring cost of oil tempered the gains. The yield on the 10-year Treasury note was steady at 4.38 percent, the dollar was mixed against other major currencies and gold fell.

The productivity of U.S. workers rose at a better-than-expected annual rate of 2.1 percent during the fourth quarter of last year, according to revised figures from the Labor Department. That’s sharply higher than an initial reading of just 0.8 percent, a sluggish number that had raised worries about inflation. Higher productivity allows businesses to pay workers more for their increased output without having to raise the price of their products.

In a separate report, the department said first-time claims for unemployment benefits dipped by 1,000 last week to a seasonally adjusted 310,000. It’s the fourth decline in jobless claims in the past five weeks, and takes the four-week moving average to its lowest level since the week of Oct. 28, 2000.

“All of this data has been generally good; but to me, you still need a better catalyst to break out of this range, something to indicate a more measured increase in interest rates,” said Russ Koesterich, U.S. equity strategist at State Street Corp. in Boston. “Stocks don’t do well in a rising-rate environment. So until there’s some indication that this is a benign-rate environment, you’re going to be skittish.”

Investors were also reassured by robust retail sales, which showed consumers shopping enthusiastically in February.


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