Tsunami disaster pushes US stocks down

Concerns over the economic impact of the Asian earthquake tsunami disasters pushed stocks lower in the United States today, putting Wall Street’s recent rally on hold despite decent holiday sales figures and falling oil prices.

Concerns over the economic impact of the Asian earthquake tsunami disasters pushed stocks lower in the United States today, putting Wall Street’s recent rally on hold despite decent holiday sales figures and falling oil prices.

Analysts were generally pleased with the uplift in sales most retailers reported late last week and in post-holiday shopping. Wal-Mart Stores Inc saw sales rise modestly, while Amazon.com Inc reported record sales during the holiday season.

Insurers, hotels and travel-related stocks fell as investors reacted to the devastation in Asia, which could be one of the costliest disasters in history, though the economic impact for the United States appeared to be minimal.

With trading volume very light during the holiday week, analysts said there was little to be divined from Wall Street’s initial reaction.

“Honestly, you’ve got this news out there, but trading volumes are so light, what with the holidays, you can’t really put any meaning behind what’s going on today,” said Bill Groenveld, head trader for vFinance Investments. “Low volume means everything’s magnified. Next week, we’ll get a much better idea of where things are going.”

The Dow Jones industrial average fell 50.99, or 0.47%, to 10,776.13.

Broader stock indicators saw modest losses. The Standard & Poor’s 500 index was down 5.21, or 0.43%, at 1,204.92, and the Nasdaq composite index lost 6.40, or 0.3%, to 2,154.22.

Oil prices continued to drop sharply despite wintry weather in the Northeast. A barrel of light crude was quoted at US$41.32 (€30.33), down US$2.86 (€2.10), on the New York Mercantile Exchange. 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, a division of MasterCard International, retail sales rose 8.1% this holiday season, compared to a year ago. The National Retail Federation was expecting 4.5% 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 rose 24 cents to 52.79dollars after the retail giant reported that same-store sales – sales at stores open at least a year – would rise 1% to 3 %, in line with previous estimates. The company also noted strong demand for gift cards.

Amazon.com Inc said demand for consumer electronics oustripped its book business for the first time during the holidays, the busiest season in company history.

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. Amazon.com surged US$3.32 (€2.44) to US$42.25 (€31.02).

Declining issues outnumbered advancers by about 8 to 5 on the New York Stock Exchange, where volume was very light.

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

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