The major U.S. indexes, stuck in a trading range for much of Thursday's session, ended mixed. Blue chips posted slight gains, while techs slipped a bit. The broader market was nearly unchanged.
The Dow Jones industrial average was up 15.29 points, or 0.15%, to 10,517.14. The Nasdaq Composite Index was off 7.90 points, or 0.42%, to 1,854.13. The broader Standard & Poor's 500 Index was relatively flat, off 1.05 points, or 0.09%, to 1,153.03.
Investors were struggling to regain their footing after a sell-off one day earlier. On Wednesday, the markets were jolted after the Commerce Dept. said retail sales edged up a seasonally adjusted 0.3% in February to $296.41 billion, lower than what the Street had expected. Stocks had run up in previous sessions as investors took their cue from a string of more favorable data releases.
On Thursday, market players waded through a new batch of economic data. U.S. business inventories rose 0.2% in January after a 0.5% decline in December. Sales rose 1.1% from a flat reading in December. The inventory/sales ratio slipped to 1.38 from 1.39. The gain in inventories prompted Standard & Poor's economic research unit MMS to raise its estimates for GDP growth to 5.0% for the first quarter and 4.5% for the second.
Meanwhile, U.S. import prices fell 0.1% and were down 0.5% excluding petroleum. Export prices were down 0.2%, and were unchanged excluding agriculture. That's the eighth decline in import prices in the last nine months and reflects the strong dollar, as well as the lack of demand for imported goods during the downturn in the economy. Petroleum prices were up 2.9% in February.
Among the stocks in the news, Toys "R" Us (TOY ) reported a 37% drop in quarterly net income, as it closed unprofitable stores and cut costs to offset flat sales and competition. Shares of Toys "R" Us shed 6%.
In other retail news, catalog and Internet apparel merchant Lands' End (LE ) posted a 44% rise in quarterly earnings, boosted by higher sales of women's clothes and home products. However, the stock closed down 14% after the company said full-year earnings would fall below analysts' expectations.
And in other earnings news, major software names Oracle (ORCL ) and Adobe (ADBE ) reported quarterly earnings in line with Wall Street expectations after Thursday's closing bell.
Meanwhile, just after the end of Wall Street trading Thursday, the Justice Dept. brought criminal charges against Arthur Andersen after the accounting firm spurned a government deadline to plead guilty in the Enron scandal, according to wire reports. The DOJ alleges Andersen willfully destroyed tons of documents, and those efforts involved offices in London, Chicago, and other Andersen locations.
U.S. Treasuries ended lower in price. A flood of new debt issues coming to market and market nervousness over a potential shift in Federal Reserve policy helped drive the market lower. On the labor front, the number of initial jobless claims edged down to a seasonally adjusted 377,000 for the week ended March 9 from 380,000 the previous week, falling closely in line with analysts' expectations, according to wire reports. It was the tenth consecutive week initial claims remained below the key 400,000 level that analysts consider recessionary.
European markets finished mixed. In London, the Financial Times-Stock Exchange 100 index lost 10.60 points, or 0.20%, to 5,261.40. The biggest contributors to the decline in the index included BP Amoco, GlaxoSmithKline and AstraZeneca. In France, the CAC 40 was up 23.07 points, or 0.51%, to 4,546.84. In Germany, the DAX Index added 39.89 points, or 0.76%, to 5,285.88, on short covering and bargain hunting.
In Asia, the markets ended on the upside. The Nikkei gained 153.51 points, or 1.34%, to 11,568.82, led by market heavyweight IT-related shares. In Hong Kong, the market was up 86.20 points, or 0.77%, to 11,303.70.