- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 9, 2005

NEW YORK (AP) — Volatile oil prices and a weak dollar sent stocks plunging yesterday as the prospect of inflation and rising interest rates sank in on Wall Street. Yields on long-dated Treasuries surged to an eight-month high and the Dow Jones Industrial Average skidded 107 points.

A gradual acceleration of inflation and a rally in commodities have made investors increasingly nervous about stocks, as many on Wall Street predict a slowdown in corporate profits for 2005. Those concerns were in high relief yesterday as the feeble dollar and bearish bond market combined with a rise in gold and oil prices to create a storm of selling.

The Dow closed down 107, or 0.98 percent, at 10,805.62, diminishing hope that the index would soon break the 11,000 mark for the first time in nearly four years.

The broader gauges also slid. The Standard & Poor’s 500 Index declined 12.42, or 1.02 percent, to 1,207.01. The Nasdaq Composite Index fell 12.26, or 0.59 percent, to 2,061.29.

Oil futures came within 2 cents of their all-time intraday high, but fell back late in the session, settling up just 6 cents at $54.65 per barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange. Weekly government data showed a larger-than-expected rise in domestic crude inventories, but declines in supplies of gasoline and distillate fuel, which includes heating oil.

Some traders had speculated that oil prices would climb higher still amid supply concerns and as cold weather caused shudders in the Northeast. Energy stocks finished sharply lower, however, with the AMEX Oil Index dropping 2.62 percent. Exxon Mobil Corp. was the worst performer on the Dow, tumbling 3.7 percent, or $2.31, to $60.79.

It was also a challenging day on the bond market, as the yield on the 10-year Treasury note rose to its highest level since July, settling at 4.51 percent, up from 4.39 percent late Tuesday. The selling stepped up after the Federal Reserve released its survey of business conditions, known as the Beige Book; the report said the economy was strong, but suggested inflation may be starting to rise. Some saw this as a hint that the Fed might take a more aggressive posture on raising short-term rates at its March 22 meeting.

Bond traders had already moved to bearish positions as the Treasury auctioned $15 billion in five-year notes yesterday, and prepared to sell $9 billion in 10-year notes today. Some of the nervousness was related to an ongoing debate about foreign buyers’ appetite for U.S. debt, especially in the face of a weaker dollar. Further widening the currency gap, a rise in industrial production in Germany and good economic news out of Japan contributed to the strength of the euro and the yen.

Michael Strauss, chief economist at Commonfund, said a combination of solid economic growth and rising inflation risk is “a caution flag that the market’s perception that the Fed is going to be close to completing its tightening moves is probably not correct.”

“I think the bond market is going through a reality check,” Mr. Strauss said. “The bottom line is that the economy looks healthier, it looks like it’s absorbed some hiccups … but inflation is coming. And more importantly, the Fed recognizes this.”

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