US stocks fall

Wall Street stumbled lower today as growing concerns over technology companies led jittery investors to pull money out of the market ahead of this week’s earnings reports.

Wall Street stumbled lower today as growing concerns over technology companies led jittery investors to pull money out of the market ahead of this week’s earnings reports.

The market has been vulnerable to erratic trading lately, with investors cautious about the direction of the economy and companies’ results.

The tech sector so far has been knocked down the most, after Apple Inc.’s and Intel Corp.’s outlooks last week fell below the Street’s expectations.

With industry leaders like Qualcomm Inc. and Microsoft Corp. releasing their financial results later this week, many investors are bracing for disappointing reports.

“The market is nervous,” said Joe Ranieri, managing director in equity trading at Canaccord Adams.

“We’ve had a few good quarters in a row in tech land. The problem with having good quarters is, it gets harder and harder to impress.”

Blue chip stocks were also dragged down by a Wachovia analyst’s downgrade of Boeing Co.; the analyst cited possible aircraft order delays from the jet maker.

Overall, earnings reports and economic data this year have signalled growth that’s cooling, but not so quickly that it is squeezing corporate profits.

This would normally be good news for the stock market, but investors have been retreating – wisely, many market watchers say – on signs they may have gotten ahead of themselves late last year, when the Dow began racing into record territory.

The Dow Jones industrials fell 88.37, or 0.70%, to 12,477.16 – the biggest one-day drop since November 27, when the index fell by 158 points. Earlier in today’s session, the Dow declined by 114 points.

Broader stock indicators also dropped. The Standard Poor’s 500 index fell 7.55, or 0.53%, to 1,422.95, and the Nasdaq composite index lost 20.24, or 0.83%, closing at 2,431.07.

Bond prices rose, though investors’ hopes for an interest rate cut have dwindled in response to upbeat economic data. The yield on the benchmark 10-year Treasury note edged lower to 4.76% from 4.78% late Friday.

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

The stock indexes rebounded slightly from the session’s lows after crude oil resumed its downtrend, and American Express Co. reported that its profit rose last quarter thanks to robust spending during the holiday season. American Express rose 29 cents to 58.38 dollars.

Consumer spending could be boosted further by falling fuel costs, as the price of crude oil is 16% lower this year. Crude fell 86 cents to settle at 51.13 dollars a barrel today on the New York Mercantile Exchange, after briefly rising above 53.44 dollars.

Relief about oil’s decline wasn’t enough, though, to offset technology-related worries, which were kindled by analyst downgrades of Cisco Systems Inc., the world’s largest networking equipment maker; Motorola Inc., the world’s second largest cell phone maker; and computer maker Dell Inc.

Cisco fell 17 cents to 26.53 dollars; Motorola fell 55 cents, or 2.9%, to 18.72 dollars; and Dell dropped 53 cents, or 2.1%, to 24.49 dollars.

Texas Instruments Inc., which makes chips for cell phones, reports its financial results later. Anything below the average Street estimate of 38 cents a share could deliver another blow to tech stocks.

Texas Instruments rose 25 cents to 28.64 dollars.

Another chip maker, Advanced Micro Devices Inc., fell after rival Intel Corp. and Sun Microsystems announced an alliance that could take away some business from Advanced Micro.

Advanced Micro, which will release its earnings tomorrow, fell 20 cents to 17.53 dollars.

Despite the market’s recent aversion to technology stocks, the Dow, the SP and the tech-dominated Nasdaq are all still up on the year. Stocks have the potential to rebound, especially as earnings season winds down, Ranieri said.

“If we get through the next few weeks without disastrous earnings, some buyers will start picking up the stocks that are getting beat up now,” he said.

A separate worry weighing on the market is interest rates. A report from the Chicago region’s Federal Reserve indicated above-trend growth in December for the first time in four months – yet another argument for US Fed policy makers to keep rates on hold, or perhaps even hike them.

The market is in a tug of war right now over whether rates will be raised or lowered later in the year, said Jim Herrick, manager and director of equity trading at Baird Co. “Also, some believe oil will continue to go lower, some believe oil will go back to the levels of last year ... There’s two camps right now, and that’s why we’re having this volatility.”

Pfizer Inc., the world’s biggest drug maker, reported better-than-expected earnings but also that it is cutting 10,000 jobs in an effort to slash costs. Pfizer fell 27 cents to 26.95 dollars.

Boeing fell 3.03 dollars, or 3.4%, to 85.60 dollars after Wachovia’s downgrade.

Declining issues outnumbered advancers by about 2 to 1 on the New York Stock Exchange, where volume came to 1.41 billion shares.

The Russell 2000 index of smaller companies was down 7.20, or 0.92%, at 777.96.

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