Stocks ended mixed with the Nasdaq inching up on some positive corporate news from tech names while the broader market was pulled down by geopolitical concerns.
The Dow Jones industrial average closed down 15.41 points, or 0.15%, at 10,048.23. The broader Standard & Poor's 500-stock index eased 2.63 points, or 0.24%, to 1,091.32. The Nasdaq composite index added 7.68 points, or 0.40%, to 1,909.48. Some 1.5 billion shares changed hands on the Big Board while volume on the Nasdaq was 1.83 billion.
Wednesday's losses put the Dow and S&P 500 at their lowest closing levels of 2004.
Thursday will be a busy in terms of economic data. Investors are awaiting the final report on fourth quarter 2003 gross domestic product, which is expected to show 4.1% growth. Also key will be a report on first-time jobless claims for the week ended Mar. 20. Meantime, existing homes sales in March are expected to have ticked up to a 6.20 million unit annualized pace from 6.04 million units in January.
On the corporate earnings docket are food giant ConAgra Foods (CAG) and Casual Male Retail Group (CMRG), a retailer of apparel for big and tall men.
On Wednesday, the broader market was spooked by a report from France that authorities had defused a bomb along a main rail line.
The market avoided larger losses thanks to some positive economic news including a report that February orders for big-ticket durable goods rose a larger-than-expected 2.5% after falling a revised 2.7% in January, according to the Commerce Department.
Meantime, sales of new homes in February rose a stronger-than-expected 5.8% to a 1.163 million annualized pace.
According to economic research group Informa Global Markets, the tech-led Nasdaq was lifted by higher chip shares amid global sales forecast to rise double-digit this year. The Philly SOX (SOX.X), or semiconductor index, was up more than 2%.
Beyond info tech, consumer staples are outperforming as a defensive sector while health care, financial and energy lag the broad market. Key for the market to see a few heavy-volume up-days as a sign that big accounts are more convinced that an interim bottom is in the works, Informa Global Markets said.
Weighing somewhat on the tech sector was news that Microsoft (MSFT), the world's largest software company, was hit with a record $612 million fine from the European Union for violating EU antitrust law.
But other tech news was more encouraging. PMC-Sierra (PMCS), which makes high-speed Internet and storage semiconductors, announced that it saw its first quarter revenue at the higher end of its previously announced estimates.
Also, Red Hat (RHAT), a distributor of the Linux operating system software, reported higher quarterly earnings. The company also said its current-quarter sales would exceed the most bullish Wall Street forecast.
Prices of U.S. Treasury issues ended mixed. Treasuries opened stronger, then moved higher following the durable goods data, which at closer inspection, were not as spectacular as the headlines suggested. Strong housing data reversed the move, with further pressure added by retail profit taking concentrated in intermediate-maturity issues.
European stock markets closed lower on Wednesday. London's Financial Times-Stock Exchange 100 index was off 9.10 points, or 0.21%, to 4,309.40 as the market gave up early gains to security concerns in UAE and the U.S. Some 49 FTSE stocks were down and 47 were higher on turnover of 401 million shares following reports UK factory wages rose 2.4% in February and that former Bank of England head Eddie George is worried about high consumer debt.
In Paris, the CAC 40 was down 21.46 points, or 0.61%, to 3,518.45. Some 21 CAC stocks were higher and 19 were lower on turnover of 28.3 million shares. Thomson was higher.
Germany's DAX index eased 2.75 points, or 0.07%, to 3,726.07 as German January construction orders fell for third consecutive month. Building industry officials said they expected 10th year of declining sales. Security concerns in U.S. and Middle East erased earlier gains. Some 18 DAX stocks were up and 11 were down on turnover of 37.7 million shares. Metro Group was higher as it expects 2005 profits to jump as much as 15%. Infineon Technologies was higher as researcher Gartner Inc. sees semiconductor surge this year.
In Asia, the equity markets finished higher. The Nikkei 225 index added 83.90 points, or 0.74%, to 11,364.99.
In Hong Kong, the Hang Seng index advanced 89.77 points, or 0.71%, to 12,678.13.