Stocks Lose Momentum, Head Lower

Stocks fell Monday as Wall Street wrestled with decent but uninspiring holiday sales reports and a sharp drop in oil prices that knocked down shares of energy-related companies. Investors also waited to see the extent of the damage due to the earthquake and tidal waves in Asia.

The Dow Jones industrial average (search) was down 18.84 points, or 0.17 percent, at 10,808.71. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index (search) was down 3.31 points, or 0.43 percent, at 1,206.82. The technology-laced Nasdaq Composite Index (search) was down 9.26 points, or 0.43 percent, at 2,151.37.

"When there isn't a lot of news to trade off, the market tends to trade within a certain range and that's probably what we're seeing right now," said Brian Williamson, vice president, equity trading, The Boston Co. Asset Management.

Volume was light, with Wall Street sparsely staffed following the Christmas break. Just 607 million shares had traded by early afternoon on the New York Stock Exchange, while only 1 billion had traded on the Nasdaq.

Insurance stocks came under pressure on worries over possible claims after devastating tsunamis killed more than 22,000 in various countries in South and Southeast Asia. Shares of XL Capital Ltd. (XL) slipped 0.5 percent to $78.11 and RenaissanceRe Holdings Ltd (RNR) was down nearly 1 percent to $51.10. Hilton Hotels Corp. (HLT) slipped 5 cents to $22.51, but hotelier Four Seasons Hotel Inc. (FS) rose 15 cents to $83.20 after substantial losses early in the session.

Shares of Exxon Mobil Corp. (XOM) fell 50 cents to $51.47 and ChevronTexaco Corp. (CVX) was down 28 cents at $52.38 as oil prices fell more than $2 a barrel., Inc. (AMZN) 6 percent to $41.19 after the online retailer said its holiday sales season was the busiest ever. The online retailer also said it set a single-day sales record during the period with more than 2.8 million units, or 32 items per second, ordered across the globe.

Shares of Sirius Satellite Radio (SIRI) rose 4.5 percent to $8.31 after the subscription radio company said it surpassed its full year 2004 target of 1 million subscribers.

But specialty retailer Sharper Image Corp. (SHRP) plunged 16.3 percent to $19.38 after the company lowered its fourth-quarter and fiscal-year forecasts.

Oil prices continued to drop sharply despite wintry weather in the Northeast. A barrel of light crude was quoted at $41.32, down $2.86, on the New York Mercantile Exchange (search). That took the edge off of troublesome currency news, as the dollar fell to another new low against the euro Monday.

Last-minute shoppers may have helped the retail sector exceed its diminished expectations for the year. According to SpendingPulse (search), a division of MasterCard International, retail sales rose 8.1 percent this holiday season, compared to a year ago. The National Retail Federation was expecting 4.5 percent growth; its figures have yet to be released.

"When you take a look at online sales and the phenomena of gift cards, and you put it all together, it appears it was a solid retail sales spending spree for the Christmas season," said Joseph Keating, chief investment officer at AmSouth Asset Management. "And when you look at the underpinnings of the economy, they're still solid, too."

Wal-Mart (WMT) rose 24 cents to $52.79 after the retail giant reported that same-store sales — sales at stores open at least a year — would rise 1 percent to 3 percent, in line with previous estimates. The company also noted strong demand for gift cards.

Other retailers also made gains. J.C. Penney & Co. Inc. (JCP) climbed 22 cents to $40.22, Federated Department Stores Inc. (FD) gained 36 cents to $35.60, Sears, Roebuck and Co. (S) rose 54 cents to $52.04 and May Department Stores Co. (MAY) was up 44 cents at $29.14.

The Russell 2000 index of smaller companies was down 5.03, or 0.77 percent, at 644.34.

Overseas, Japan's Nikkei stock average fell 0.03 percent. In Europe, Germany's Xetra DAX index dropped 0.38 percent and France's CAC-40 lost 0.13 percent for the session. London markets were closed for the holidays.

Reuters and the Associated Press contributed to this report.