Anxiety Over Drugs Clouds Stock Outlook

Stocks should hold firm next week with little economic data or corporate news on tap to move the market going into the Christmas holiday, but nervousness will persist around drugmakers' shares, strategists said.

The pharmaceutical sector was rocked after a barrage of sour product news from sector heavyweights such as Dow component Pfizer Inc. (PFE), and smaller rivals AstraZeneca (AZN) and Eli Lilly & Co. (LLY).

Pfizer's stock initially fell as much as up to 19 percent, before retracing close to half that loss by the end of trading, after it said it was ending cancer-prevention trials of its popular Celebrex arthritis drug.

The 30-stock Dow Jones industrial average rose 1.01 percent during the week. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index (search) gained 0.52 percent and the Nasdaq Composite Index finished the week up 0.34 percent.

With just two weeks left before closing the books on 2004, the three major indexes are all in the black for the year. The Dow is up 1.9 percent, the S&P 500 is up 7.4 percent and the Nasdaq is up about 7 percent.

On what seemed like a Black Friday for drugmakers, Pfizer's warning coincided with news that Lilly would stamp a warning label for some patients who should not take its drug, Strattera, for attention deficit disorder.

Those setbacks were preceded by Anglo-Swedish group AstraZeneca's statement that its lung cancer drug Iressa, already launched in the United States and Japan, had failed to help patients live longer in a major clinical study.

Pharmaceutical stocks aside, equity strategists said that the general tone of the market would otherwise be stable in the absence of any notable market-moving economic data.

"There is confidence that the economy is on a self-sustaining expansion course and I don't think anything is going to happen to upset that expectations. The problem now is only stock-specific," said Michael Metz, chief investment strategist at Oppenheimer & Co.

"For those who thought that the worst was over for the drug industry and we had a good rally this week, they are now having second thoughts," Metz added.

The American Stock Exchange drugs and pharmaceutical index (search) had risen from a little below 300 to around 320 between the last week of November and Thursday, before falling as low as 303.57 Friday and closing at 310.71.

For much of this year's second half, U.S. stocks have been led by swings in oil prices and weakness in the dollar.

Stanley Nabi, vice chairman at Silvercrest Asset Management, said the market expects the price of a barrel of crude to stabilize between the high $30s and the mid-$40s over the next few months.

"I think ... oil prices at those levels have already been absorbed by the economy," Nabi said. "It won't have any negative impact from this point on."

In November, the U.S. Consumer Price Index rose 0.2 percent and core CPI, excluding volatile food and energy prices, also gained 0.2 percent — matching Wall Street's forecasts in each case. Overall, energy prices in November went up 0.2 percent, after soaring 4.2 percent in October.

This offered some relief to those concerned about inflation after the CPI's jump of 0.6 percent in October. U.S. crude oil futures peaked at $55.67 a barrel in late October — the highest price in the 21 years that oil futures have traded on the New York Mercantile Exchange.

On Friday, NYMEX January crude rose $2.10 to settle at $46.28 a barrel.

The dollar slipped Friday, trading at 104.17 yen, down 0.5 percent. The euro was at $1.3311, up 0.5 percent.


Snow is forecast for some parts of the U.S. Northeast early next week. But on Wall Street's calendar, the outlook calls for only a light dusting of economic data and earnings reports.

The only economic figures to be announced next week are the November durable goods number, which reflects the demand for big-ticket items like cars, refrigerators, washing machines and other items produced by the manufacturing sector, and weekly jobless claims.

Economists expect November durable goods orders to rise 0.6 percent, compared with a drop of 1.1 percent in October. The jobless claims for the week ending Dec. 18 are expected to rise to 330,000 from 317,000 last week. Both figures are due Thursday, Dec. 23.

The market will be closed Friday, Dec. 24, the official observance of the U.S. Christmas holiday, which falls on Saturday this year.

Investment banks Morgan Stanley (WMD) and Bear Stearns Cos. Inc. (BSC) lead a short list of earnings reports due. Both are likely to have an impact on the market as investors eye their reports for an additional read on the strength of business on Wall Street.

Any news on the deal pipeline from Morgan Stanley, one of the Street's biggest financial advisers, also could boost market sentiment as it would mean that the market could expect more corporate mergers early next year.