Weak retail sales figures push stocks lower

Stocks closed mostly lower on Wall Street Thursday after signs emerged that Americans are spending at a slower pace and that China's economy may be in worse shape than previously thought.

American shoppers slowed their spending in June, resulting in tepid sales for many retailers. Target's stock fell 1 percent and Costco Wholesale fell less than a percent after reporting that sales rose less than analysts were expecting.

"It all boils down to one little word: uncertainty," said Peter Cardillo, chief market economist at Rockwell Global Capital. "No one will spend if it feels like we're in a recession."

The reports raised concerns about Americans' ability to spend during the back-to-school shopping season, which starts later this month. That's a crucial period for retailers.

The Dow Jones industrial average closed down 47.15 points at 12,896.67 on Thursday. The Standard & Poor's 500 fell 6.44 points to 1,367.58. The Nasdaq composite was 0.04 point higher at 2,976.12.

Eight of the 10 major industries tracked by the S&P 500 fell, led by bank stocks. JPMorgan Chase fell $1.50, or 4 percent, to $34.38, while Bank of America fell 24 cents, or 3 percent, to $7.82.

China surprised investors earlier Thursday when it cut interest rates for the second time in a month. That caused investors to worry that the downturn in the world's second-largest economy may be worse than previously expected.

The People's Bank of China cut its main lending rate 0.31 percentage point to 6 percent and reduced its deposit rates by a quarter of a percentage point to 3 percent. The bank said the lower rates are intended to boost economic growth in the second half of the year. Analysts said the cuts are also a sign that Chinese authorities are increasingly concerned about that country's economy.

As the largest buyer of raw materials, a slowdown in China can hurt sales at a wide range of companies and cause commodities prices to weaken. Crude oil fell 44 cents to $87.22 per barrel, and copper lost 4.7 cents to $3.493 a pound.

Central banks in Europe also moved to stem a slowdown there. The Bank of England approved a 50 billion pound injection into the ailing British economy, while the European Central Bank cut its main interest rate by a quarter of a percentage point to 0.75 percent, the lowest it's been since the bank was established in 1999.

Usually central bank action to spur economies bolsters stock prices. But investors were cautious ahead of the closely-watched U.S. government's report on hiring for June that is scheduled for release on Friday.

"Given the big negative headlines we have had this past month from Europe, business owners would have been cautious about hiring," said Steven Goldman, principal of asset manager Goldman Management. Goldman expects the data to reflect a weak jobs market.

Economists are predicting that the unemployment rate held steady at 8.2 percent.

However, at least two reports on Thursday sketched a picture of a slowly improving job market.

Weekly unemployment benefit applications dropped by 14,000 to 374,000, the Labor Department said Thursday. That's the fewest since the week of May 19.

Separately, payroll provider ADP said businesses added 176,000 jobs last month. That's better than the revised total of 136,000 jobs it reported for May. If that pace keeps up, it would be enough to lower the unemployment rate.

An increase in jobs will spur people to spend and provide a boost to the economy. Though some key retailers reported poor sales for June, several others beat analysts' expectations.

Ross Stores stock rose $4.41, or over 7 percent, to $67.19 after the discount store operator said sales at stores open at least a year rose 7 percent in June, easily beating Wall Street predictions. TJX Cos., which operates T.J. Maxx, Marshalls and Home Goods stores, also reported a wider-than-expected 7 percent increase in sales last month. Its stock rose $1.59, or 3.7 percent, to $44.09.

Among other stocks making big moves:

— Netflix jumped $9.68, or 13.5 percent, to $81.72 after the company said earlier this week that its online subscriber base was increasing.

— Apple gained $10.53, or 1.76 percent, to $609.94, after The Wall Street Journal reported that the company is preparing to come out with a tablet computer with a screen smaller than the one its hugely popular iPad.

— OraSure Technologies Inc. surged $1.26, or 10.4 percent, to $13.35 after the Food and Drug Administration approved the healthcare product company's in-home oral test for HIV, which will be sold in stores starting in October.