US stocks extended their losing streak to four days tonight after a mixed batch of readings on consumers further muddled investors' sense of the economy.
The major stock indexes fluctuated throughout the day before closing slightly lower. The Dow Jones industrial average fell nearly 17 points and has now lost almost 400 over four days.
It was a typically slow summer Friday, but only partially due to holidays. Traders who were working had little reason to make any major moves because of economic data that remains confusing.
One of the biggest obstacles to a strong economic recovery is weak consumer spending, and today's reports about consumers' attitudes and spending didn't point to a shopping rebound anytime soon.
The Commerce Department said retail sales rose 0.4% in July. That was an improvement after two months of sales declines, but the number was just below economists' forecast of a gain of 0.5%.
While the report showed strength in car sales due to buyers' incentives, it also showed that consumers are shying away from other purchases.
Some better news came from the University of Michigan/Reuters survey of consumer sentiment for the first part of August, which showed consumers are slightly more optimistic. An index based on the survey came in at 69.6, slightly above analysts' estimates and up from July's 67.8.
But retailer JC Penney lowered its earnings forecast for the year, citing expectations that consumer spending will be slow. It joined competitor Kohl's, which lowered its earnings outlook yesterday.
These latest reports fell in line with a long string of conflicting data that has left investors unsure about where the economy is heading.
Consumer spending has remained weak along with the labour market, and there are no signs that employers are ready to start hiring at a pace to help lift the economy.
Yesterday, the Labour Department said the number of people filing for unemployment benefits for the first time rose last week.
Although JC Penney and Kohl's were disappointments for investors, second-quarter earnings overall have been strong and company executives are optimistic.
The split between economic and earnings numbers has added to investors' murky view of the economy. It contributed to this week's heavy selling.
"We're in a fragile market," said Steven Goldman, chief market strategist at Weeden & Co in Greenwich, Connecticut. He noted that the market's decline is feeding the lack of confidence among consumers and investors.
The Dow fell 16.80, or 0.2%, to 10,303.15 today. The Standard & Poor's 500 index fell 4.36, or 0.4%, to 1,079.25, while the Nasdaq composite index fell 16.79, or 0.8%, to 2,173.48.
Losing stocks were ahead of gainers by almost four to three on the New York Stock Exchange, where volume came to an extremely light 871 million shares.