Mixed end for US stocks

Mixed end for US stocks

Wall Street ended a tumultuous two-week run relatively quietly today, finishing another back-and-forth session mixed as investors were cheered by signs of easing in the credit markets and managed to absorb lacklustre economic news with equanimity.

The expiration of options contracts helped tug the market in different directions throughout the session. Still, the Dow Jones industrial average traded within a narrower range than it had in much of the past two weeks.

The Dow ended down 127 but big rallies on Monday and yesterday gave all the major indexes gains of well over 3% for the week – but just a partial recovery from the devastating double-digit drops of the previous week.

“The stock market has finally realised one thing – that the governments around the world have thrown in a lot of money and they’re using all the tools that they possibly can” to restore order to the credit markets, said Peter Cardillo, chief market economist at Avalon Partners Inc, a New York brokerage house.

“I’m sure we’ll still have a strong bear grip to the market but I do believe the market was way oversold. I do believe we’ve made a bottom.”

He said economic data are likely to remain bleak but that the market has already taken into account much of the economy’s problems.

“Everything is ugly. It’s going to stay this way for a while,” he said.

The market spent the first half of the session vacillating, moving between gains and losses, after the government said new home construction dropped by more than expected last month to the lowest pace since early 1991.

But investors’ mood seemed to pick up later in the session as lending rates for bank-to-bank loans eased, indicating some bank fears about not being repaid by borrowers is easing.

Demand for safe-haven investments like Treasury bills also decreased.

The final hour of trading again proved pivotal as in much of October; stocks fluctuated as investors squared away positions for the week.

Given the magnitude of most of the recent sessions in October, the indexes’ moderate declines today seemed barely noteworthy. And advancing issues outnumbered decliners by about 3 to 2 on the New York Stock Exchange, where volume came to 1.74 billion shares.

The loosening of credit markets appeared to draw most of investors’ attention. The London interbank offered rate, or Libor, for three-month dollar loans fell to 4.41% from 4.50% yesterday, the fifth consecutive day of declines.

“I think we’re beginning to get a slightly better feeling in the credit market,” said Mr Cardillo, pointing to the move in Libor.

It was an erratic week on Wall Street, with the Dow soaring 936 points on Monday, slipping moderately on Tuesday, sinking 733 points on Wednesday, and then rallying 401 yesterday.

The volatility is not providing investors with much relief, but it is a welcome change from last week’s relentless plunge, during which the Dow logged its worst week ever and Wall Street lost about 2.4 trillion dollars in shareholder wealth.

The Dow Jones industrial average fell 127.04, or 1.41%, today to 8,852.22, after falling 261 points in early trading and rising 302 points – a 563-point range.

Broader stock indicators showed more modest declines. The Standard & Poor’s 500 index fell 5.88, or 0.62%, to 940.55, while the Nasdaq composite index fell 6.42, or 0.37%, to 1,711.29.

The credit markets have been gradually improving after moves by governments around the world, particularly plans to buy stakes in private banks to boost their lending. Demand remains high for Treasury bills, regarded as the safest assets around, an indication that there is uncertainty lingering in the markets.

The three-month Treasury bill today yielded 0.81%, up from 0.47% yesterday. That indicates a let-up in demand, although the yield has not surpassed 1% in more than a week.

The dollar was mixed against other major currencies, while gold prices fell.

David Dietze, president at Point View Financial Services Inc in Summit, New Jersey, contends that much of the market’s see-saw moves in the past month have come as hedge funds and mutual funds were forced to sell positions because some shareholders were cashing out.

“These hedge funds are getting hit by redemptions, their credit lines are being pulled and they are having to sell furiously,” he said. “Selling begets selling, which begets selling, which begets more selling.”

While Mr Dietze sees risks for the economy, he questions whether the rapidity of the stock market’s retreat signals the pullback was overdone.

“We have a credit crunch which is morphing into a general recession and certainly a lot of the economic data points down but still, to come in this week and see the markets down 20% – basically a bear market within a bear market just this month – you wonder if there isn’t just this massive overreaction,” he said.

A rise in oil prices helped energy companies, some of which had weighed on the market earlier in the week as oil showed steep declines. Light, sweet crude rose 2 dollars to settle at 71.85 dollars a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange. Yesterday it sank to a 14-month low on worries about a deep global recession obliterating fuel demand.

Chesapeake Energy Corp rose 2.12 dollars, or 11.6%, to 20.47 dollars, while XTO Energy Inc rose 2.08 dollars, or 7%, to 31.68 dollars.

Health stocks generally rose. UnitedHeatlh Group Inc advanced 1.76 dollars, or 7.8%, to 24.39 dollars, while Schering Plough Corp rose 71 cents, or 5.1%, to 14.76 dollars.

Late yesterday, Google Inc posted a 26% increase in third-quarter profit. Google rose 19.52 dollars, or 5.5%, to 372.54 dollars. Earlier in the day, the internet company’s stock had fallen to a three-year low.

Economic readings which appeared to trouble the market early in the session seemed to lose their importance as investors looked to improvement in the credit markets.

The Commerce Department reported that housing starts fell more than 6% in September to an annual rate of 817,000 units. The figure is lower than the 880,000 units forecast by Wall Street economists surveyed by Thomson/IFR. Building permits also sank.

The report was yet another piece of evidence that the US is struggling with a weak economy which, if the financial crisis is not solved, could weaken.

President George Bush said in a speech today that the credit market – where many companies find funding for their operations – will take a while to thaw, but that Americans should be confident that it will.

The Russell 2000 index of smaller companies fell 10.14, or 1.89%, to 526.43.

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