Stocks Lose Grip on Early Gains, Dow off 15

By TIM PARADIS
|  Friday, May 22, 2009  |  Updated 6:56 PM EDT
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The Dow Jones industrial average fell 14.81, or 0.2 percent, to 8,277.32. The S&P 500 index slipped 1.33, or 0.2 percent, to 887.00, and the Nasdaq composite index lost 3.24, or 0.2 percent, to 1,692.01.

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Wall Street's confidence took some heavy blows this week.

Despite a strong rally on Monday, stocks drifted lower for much of the week on a darkening economic outlook. In a now-familiar pattern, early gains were erased in the last hour of trading Friday as the market lost its will to move higher. Major indexes ended down about 0.2 percent.

Trading has been choppy over the past two weeks as more investors began to doubt that a monster two-month rally this spring could be sustained. More bad indicators came this week when the Fed said unemployment could go as high as 9.6 percent, worse than its previous forecast, and Standard & Poors said the British government might lose is AAA credit rating.

Stocks traded most of the day higher on Friday following better-than-expected results from several retailers including Sears Holdings Corp., Gap Inc. and Aeropostale Inc. But losses in financial and industrial shares wound up dragging the market down, marking the third time this week that stocks erased early gains to end lower.

With few economic reports coming out this week, the market was left with little fuel to continue a two and a half-month surge that has lifted stocks up more than 30 percent from 12-year lows in early March.

Next week's economic calendar is much more heavily loaded, with key reports coming on home sales, orders for manufactured goods and consumer confidence. Whether those data please or disappoint the market could be the key to determining what becomes of the spring rally.

"Everything is overpriced," said Harry Rady, chief executive and portfolio manager of Rady Asset Management. "A very long, protracted recession is still very much alive."

The Dow Jones industrial average fell 14.81, or 0.2 percent, to 8,277.32. The S&P 500 index slipped 1.33, or 0.2 percent, to 887.00, and the Nasdaq composite index lost 3.24, or 0.2 percent, to 1,692.01.

Despite the market's seesaw movements this week, all the major indicators finished the five-day period just barely in the black. The Dow rose 0.10 percent; the S&P 500 index rose 0.47 percent; and the Nasdaq rose 0.71 percent.

Investors were jolted by a warning Thursday from Standard & Poor's that it could downgrade the British government's top-shelf debt rating, which would increase its borrowing costs just as it's spending heavily to bail out troubled British banks. That got some thinking that the United States' own AAA rating might also be in jeopardy.

Worries about the U.S. government's credit ratings eased somewhat on Friday, but Treasurys and the dollar both lost ground, with the dollar falling to its weakest level against the euro since January.

The yield on the 10-year Treasury note hit a new high for the year, climbing to 3.46 percent from 3.37 percent late Thursday. The 10-year note is a widely used benchmark for home mortgages and other kinds of loans. Gold prices rose about 1 percent as investors looked for safety.

"The crisis of deficit financing and deficit spending is moving its way up the food chain," said John Brady, senior vice president of global interest rate products at MF Global in Chicago. Brady said investors are worried about whether the economy will be able to recover if interest rates are higher and the dollar is weaker.

Some of the signals this week were encouraging, however. The Federal Reserve said banks reduced borrowing from its emergency loan program over the past week, while investment banks didn't borrow at all — the first time that's happened since early September.

Financial stocks were mixed after federal regulators made their biggest bank seizure in the year to date as investors tried to figure out how many more failures might be coming. Credit card issuers mainly fell as President Barack Obama prepared to sign into law new rules for the credit card industry.

Federal officials late Thursday seized Florida thrift BankUnited FSB in a move that is expected to cost the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.'s insurance fund $4.9 billion. It's the costliest hit since last year's seizure of California lender IndyMac Bank that is estimated to have cost $10.7 billion.

Bank of America Corp. fell 34 cents, or 3 percent, to $11.07, while Capital One Financial Corp. fell $1.01, or 4.4 percent, to $21.92. American Express Corp. fell 75 cents, or 3.1 percent, to $23.40.

Among retailers, Sears turned in an unexpected profit for its fiscal first quarter, rebounding from a loss a year earlier, as the retailer worked to manage inventory. The stock jumped $5.21, or 10.4 percent, to $55.40.

In other trading, the Russell 2000 index of smaller companies fell 3.60, or 0.8 percent, to 477.62.

Markets will be closed on Monday for the Memorial Day holiday.

About five stocks rose for every four that fell on the New York Stock Exchange, where volume came to 1.06 billion shares, down sharply from 1.44 billion shares at the same time a day earlier.

Oil rose 62 cents to $61.67 per barrel.

Overseas, Britain's FTSE 100 rose 0.5 percent, Germany's DAX index added 0.4 percent, and France's CAC-40 rose 0.3 percent. Japan's Nikkei stock average fell 0.4 percent.

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