Stocks End Barely Changed Amid Economy Jitters

Wall Street made a muted advance Friday but still finished the week lower after a better-than-expected employment report raised hopes about the economy's strength despite the recent hurricanes. The major indexes each lost more than 2 percent this week.

According to preliminary calculations, the Dow gained 5.21, or 0.05 percent, to 10,292.31. Broader stock indicators were also higher. The Standard & Poor's 500 index rose 4.41, or 0.37 percent, to 1,195.90, and the Nasdaq composite index rose 6.27, or 0.3 percent, to 2,090.35.

The market came back Friday from three straight days of losses after the Labor Department (search) said September payrolls, while down for the first time in two years, fell by only 35,000 jobs. Fearing an economic slump in the wake of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, economists had forecast a drop of 150,000.

But while the Dow Jones industrial average rose as much as 60 shortly after the opening bell, stocks gave up most of their gains throughout the day amid some skepticism about the report. Investors also awaited greater clarity about the economy's health from upcoming third-quarter earnings and forward-looking estimates.

"Any celebration the market was going to put on was overshadowed by the fact that (the job loss) wasn't good news," said Arthur Hogan, chief market analyst at Jefferies & Co. "I think calmer minds prevailed."

Bonds followed stocks upward, with the yield on the 10-year Treasury note sliding to 4.37 percent from 4.39 percent Thursday. The dollar was mixed against other major currencies in European trading, and gold prices crept higher.

For the week, the Dow fell 2.62 percent, the S&P 500 lost 2.68 percent and the Nasdaq fell 2.84 percent.

Christopher Piros, director of investment strategy for Prudential's Strategic Investment Research Group, was skeptical of the Labor Department data and said he's waiting for October's or November's employment figures before getting a better read on the hurricanes' effect.

"I think the immediate reaction ought to be that we have to wait and see," Piros said. "Chances are, because the reference period was really before Rita hit and sort of in the midst of Katrina issues, many firms did not respond to the survey. People may have been treated as employed even though they were not in the area."

The government also reported a moderate 0.2 percent increase in hourly wages last month, a signal that the economy is growing and not at risk of recession. The growth supports the Federal Reserve's policy of hiking interest rates to contain inflation, and Piros downplayed concerns about soaring energy and material costs reaching consumers.

"The Fed has indicated to us in the most recent statement that they have a very low tolerance for pass-through of cost increases to consumers," Piros said. Instead, "profits are likely to get squeezed."

"There is a chance for a fair amount of disappointment if the Fed is sucessful in capping inflation," he said of quarterly earnings data, expected later this month.

Meanwhile, a rise in oil prices broke a five-day slide as traders looked past news that U.S. fuel consumption declined last month amid expectations for increased demand this winter. A barrel of light crude added 48 cents to settle at $61.84 on the New York Mercantile Exchange.

In corporate news, Delphi Corp. (DPH) shares plunged $1.08, or 49.1 percent, to $1.12 after the auto parts maker asked United Auto Workers to slash wages by more than 50 percent and reduce health benefits and vacation time as it fights to avoid bankruptcy, which could come later this month. The company also wants to eliminate full pay to laid-off employees.

Office supply retailer Staples Inc. (SPLS) reiterated its profit expectations for this year and forecast earnings growth of up to 20 percent in 2006. Staples also announced plans to buy back $1.5 billion of its common stock once an existing $1 billion repurchase program is finished later this year. Staples rose 12 cents to $21.47.

Consulting firm Accenture Ltd. (ACN) reported Thursday that its profit grew 25 percent in the fourth quarter, and that earnings should grow by 13 percent to 17 percent next year. New bookings of $5.2 billion were the highest in six quarters, the company said. Accenture added $1.42 to $26.67.

Blockbuster Inc. (BBI) on Thursday said it still anticipates reaching 2 million subscribers to its online rental service next year, but not by its previous target for the first quarter. Rival Netflix Inc. last week reported it has 3.6 million users. Nonetheless, Blockbuster jumped 97 cents to $5.42.

Advancing issues outpaced decliners by more than 5 to 3 on the New York Stock Exchange, where volume of 1.61 billion shares lagged the 2.14 billion shares traded Thursday.

The Russell 2000 index of smaller companies climbed 4.88, or 0.76 percent, to 644.33.

Overseas, Japan's Nikkei stock average dropped 0.99 percent. Britain's FTSE 100 fell 0.19 percent, Germany's DAX index lost 0.19 percent, and France's CAC-40 was lower by 0.18 percent.