NEW YORK – Stocks ended mixed Thursday, retreating from earlier gains, as a sharp rise in crude oil prices offset a series of reassuring economic data and General Electric (GE)'s announcement of a raised forecast. Many investors were unwilling to take large positions ahead of a long holiday weekend.
The Dow Jones industrial average (search) lost 13.15 points, or 0.13 percent, to finish at 10,442.87. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index (search) fell 1.11 points, or 0.09 percent, to end at 1,171.42. The Nasdaq Composite Index (search) was up just 0.84 of a point, or 0.04 percent, to close at 1,991.06.
For the week, the Dow ended down 1.8 percent, the S&P fell 1.5 percent and Nasdaq was off 0.8 percent.
U.S. financial markets will be closed Friday for the Good Friday holiday, so trading desks were sparsely populated as the afternoon wore on.
"There's just a lack of volume — maybe some people just left early, and why take additional risk over the long weekend?" said Elliot Spar, market strategist with Ryan Beck & Co. "Also, crude closed near the high of the day and that didn't help."
After dropping 4 percent earlier in the week, oil prices staged an impressive comeback. A barrel of light crude was quoted at $54.84, up $1.03, on the New York Mercantile Exchange (search), after falling more than $3.50, or 6 percent, in the previous two sessions. Prices rose following Wednesday's blast at a gasoline unit in BP's Texas City refinery — the third-largest in the United States — in which at least 15 people were killed.
BP said the incident cut no more than 5 percent of the plant's gasoline production, but energy analysts said the explosion pointed up the market's vulnerability to unexpected supply problems. High oil prices hurt equities by weighing on consumer spending and corporate profits.
Meanwhile GE (GE), a Dow component which has sprawling array of businesses from broadcasting to aircraft engines, rose 23 cents, or 0.7 percent, to $35.73 on the strength of its outlook and an increase in its full-year earnings forecast. The company also said it has priced the secondary offering of 80.5 million shares of Genworth class A common stock at $26.50 per share. GE will own 52 percent of the outstanding shares after the offering.
"GE definitely helped — they're in so many different types of businesses that when they come out with positive news, the trickle-down effect is pretty dramatic and it can kick-start multiple sectors," said Brian Williamson, vice president of equity trading at The Boston Co. Asset Management.
With orders for durable goods — those made to last more than three years — rising by just 0.3 percent in February, investors felt that demand was sluggish enough to forestall rising prices. A rise in first-time jobless claims, which were up 3,000 to 324,000 last week, gave further relief to inflation fears, since it would be difficult for companies to raise prices in a weak hiring environment.
A better-than-expected reading on new home sales in February also boosted shares of home builders. The Dow Jones Home Construction index climbed 1.4 percent.
"When the home sales came out, the market did pop, and right out of the gate, we did get the outlook from GE," Evan Olsen, head of equity trading at Stephens Inc., said.
"Also, we're going into a three-day weekend after the market has been down pretty dramatically for the past couple of weeks. People are starting to focus more on valuation and worry a little less about inflation," he said.
With inflation fears confirmed by the Federal Reserve (search) earlier in the week, Wall Street will be looking out for modest economic data to show that the economy will grow at a slow enough pace to forestall inflation, but at a fast enough pace to bolster corporate earnings reports. First quarter earnings reports will begin coming in during the second week of April.
Shareholders of Kmart Holding Corp. (KMRT) and Sears Roebuck & Co. (S) approved Kmart's $12.3 billion takeover of the venerable department store chain. Sears shareholders could take a half-share of the new company's stock or $50 in cash for each Sears share. The deadline for a stock swap has expired, however, leaving remaining Sears shareholders the lone option of taking the cash. The company said that was why Sears shares fell $6.76 to $50.04. Kmart rose $7.69 to $132.52. The combined company, Sears Holdings Corp., will begin trading Monday on the Nasdaq Stock Market.
Northrop Grumman (NOC) increased its earnings-per-share estimates for 2005, crediting its sale of TRW Automotive Holdings Corp. shares. The defense contractor's board also raised its quarterly cash dividend by 13 percent to 26 cents. Northrop Grumman was up 53 cents at $53.31.
A jury awarded Lexar Media Inc. (LEXR), maker of computer memory and components, $380 million in damages after finding that Toshiba Corp. and a U.S. subsidiary stole trade secrets from the company. Shares of Lexar, which was due to report earnings after the session, more than doubled, rising $3.15 to $6.32.
Some market observers attributed the relative strength in tech stocks during the session to a rotation into the beaten-down sector. Cisco Systems Inc. (CSCO) rose 13 cents, or 0.7 percent, to $17.88, while Microsoft Corp. (MSFT) gained 10 cents, or 0.4 percent, to $24.28.
Internet media company Yahoo Inc. (YAHOO) added 54 cents to $31.41 after its board approved a $3 billion stock repurchase program. The buybacks will be spread out over the next five years.
Trading was moderate, with 1.36 billion shares changing hands on the New York Stock Exchange, below the 1.46 billion daily average for last year. About 1.70 billion shares were traded on Nasdaq, below the 1.81 billion daily average last year. Advancers outnumbered decliners on the New York Stock Exchange by 10 to 7 and by 8 to 7 on Nasdaq.
The Russell 2000 index of smaller companies was up 3.21, or 0.5 percent, at 615.27.
Overseas, Japan's Nikkei stock average rose 0.06 percent. In Europe, Britain's FTSE 100 closed up 0.25 percent, France's CAC-40 climbed 1.14 percent for the session, and Germany's DAX index gained 0.61 percent.
Reuters and the Associated Press contributed to this report.