Stocks Fall on Mixed Economic Reports, Retail Worries

Stocks fell Tuesday as investors digested a mixed bag of economic reports, including sliding consumer confidence, and as shares of Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (WMT) extended their losses amid increasing worries about a mediocre holiday shopping season.

The Dow Jones industrial average (search) lost 47.88 points, or 0.46 percent, to end at 10,428.02, its lowest close in two weeks. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index (search) dropped 4.75 points, or 0.40 percent, to close at 1,173.82. The Nasdaq Composite Index (search) fell 10.06 points, or 0.48 percent, to finish at 2,096.81.

Despite the day's lackluster trading, November turned out to be a great month for stocks, with the Dow posting a 3.99 percent advance, the S&P adding 3.86 percent and the Nasdaq surging 6.17 percent. It was the best monthly gain of the year for all three indexes.

Shares of Wal-Mart, the No. 1 U.S. retailer, lost 2 percent after signaling that it will cut prices in the weeks before Christmas. Wal-Mart had cut its forecast for November sales over the weekend and said sales on Black Friday — the day after Thanksgiving and one of the year's biggest for retailers — were disappointing.

"We've seen more of a pullback in retailing today — I think people are starting to question how strong the holiday really was," said Owen Fitzpatrick, head of U.S. Equity Group, Deutsche Bank Private Wealth Management.

The International Council of Shopping Centers (search) said retail chain store sales slipped 1.5 percent in the week ending Nov. 27 from a week earlier, even though the latest week included Thanksgiving weekend. The Standard & Poor's retailing index was down 1.67 percent.

In addition, consumer confidence slipped to an eight-month low in November, according to The Conference Board (search), a private research company. Its consumer confidence index slipped to 90.5 in November from 92.9 in October.

Wal-Mart fell $1.09 to $52.06 while home improvement retailer Home Depot Inc. (HD) fell 2.8 percent, or $1.19, to $41.75, and discount retailer Target Corp. (TGT) shed 1.3 percent, or 68 cents, to $51.22.

"Today the whole group is falling. Retail really was the factor that, coming into this weekend, everyone was hoping would lead the market higher — so it's quite a disappointment," said Robert Drust, managing director of listed trading at regional investment bank Wedbush Morgan.

Meanwhile,brisk consumer and business spending helped the economy grow at an annual rate of 3.9 percent during the third quarter, stronger than previously thought. U.S. exports, buoyed by a weaker dollar, also contributed to the overall economic growth.

The latest GDP reading was a significant pickup over the second quarter's 3.3 percent pace. GDP, which measures the value of all goods and services produced within the United States, is considered the broadest measure of the economy's health. Some analysts think the economy will expand slightly faster than 4 percent in the current quarter.

One of the factors analysts are keeping an eye on is the impact high energy prices are having on economic activity. Oil prices hit a record high of just over $55 a barrel in late October, but have hovered near the $50 range recently. Crude futures slid 63 cents to settle at $49.13 per barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange (search).

"The benchmark now for most people is $50 a barrel ... that's the world we're living in today," said Thomas F. Lydon Jr., president of Global Trends Investments in Newport Beach, Calif. "As long as oil is under that benchmark, I think most people on Wall Street are pretty comfortable. The concern is, what are we going to do about future oil prices and supply? That probably is the biggest cloud hanging over the economy today."

Despite persistently lofty oil prices, inflation remains under control, at least from an economic point of view. An inflation gauge tied to the GDP report showed prices, excluding food and energy, rose at an annual rate of just 0.7 percent, down from a 1.7 percent growth rate during the second quarter. It was the lowest reading since 1962.

The dollar clawed back some ground against the yen after data suggested that Japanese economic growth had slowed, but the greenback was near record lows against the euro.

A weaker dollar makes U.S. products cheaper overseas. But investors can be reluctant to buy U.S. assets if they expect the dollar to continue to weaken and reduce the value of those investments.

Among the day's gainers in stocks, Pfizer Inc. (PFE) was up 44 cents at $27.77 after reaffirming its earnings forecast for the year.

Smithfield Foods Inc. (SFD) rose $1.15, or 4.1 percent, to $29.05, after matching earnings as sharply improved hog production offset lower pork margins and a modest loss in the beef segment.

On the Nasdaq market, Taser International Inc. (TASR) was up $1.98, or 7.8 percent, at $27.44, as the company defended its stun gun against calls by Amnesty International to suspend use of the product until more testing is done to determine its safety.

Meanwhile, semiconductor stocks slid. Intel Corp. (INTC), which is due to give a mid-quarter update on Thursday, was down nearly 3 percent, or 68 cents at $22.38 and Texas Instruments Inc. (TXN) was down 1.6 percent, or 39 cents, at $24.18.

Web search company Google Inc. (GOOG) said it will begin a share buyback offer for the 23.4 million common shares it may have issued improperly to previous and current employees and consultants.

Trading was active, with 1.55 billion shares changing hands on the New York Stock Exchange, above the 1.4 billion daily average for last year. About 1.88 billion shares were traded on Nasdaq, above the 1.69 billion daily average last year.

Decliners outnumbered advancers on the NYSE by about 10 to 7, and about 9 to 7 on Nasdaq.

The Russell 2000 index, which tracks smaller company stocks, was down 0.69, or 0.11 percent, at 633.77. Through all November, the Russell soared 6.54 percent, putting in its best monthly performance of the year.

Overseas, Japan's Nikkei stock average shed 0.72 percent. In Europe, France's CAC-40 declined 0.71 percent, Britain's FTSE 100 fell 0.98 percent and Germany's DAX index dipped 0.51 percent.

Reuters and the Associated Press contributed to this report.