Stocks ended Thursday mixed, but struggled for direction all session. Volume picked up some in late trading, but investors shrugged off positive corporate earnings news and mulled encouraging economic data.
"There is no truly strong momentum in price except sideways," said S&P chief market analyst Paul Cherney.
The blue-chip Dow Jones Industrial average closed down 51.22 points, or 0.60%, to 8,537.92. The broader Standard and Poor's 500-stock index lost 3.42 points, or 0.38%, to 901.54. The tech-laden Nasdaq, buoyed by strength in the telecommunications sector, finished ahead 2.70 points, or 0.19%, to 1,399.29.
In economic news, November retail sales were up 0.4% (0.5% excluding auto sales), indicating consumer resilience at the start of the holiday shopping season. Jobless claims increased by 83,000 for the week ended Dec. 7, but the Commerce Dept. attributed the rise to a seasonal aberration. The third piece of economic data Thursday morning was the U.S. current account balance, an indicator of international trade and investment flows. While analysts expected the account deficit to widen, the deficit narrowed for the first time in a year.
Investors awaited still more economic news on Friday. Keenly anticipated on the heels of Thursday's bright retail sales numbers are the producer price index and the University of Michigan consumer sentiment index.
The Dow average was dragged down by IBM (IBM ), which lost 1.56%, Merck (MRK ), which fell 2.11%, and 3M (MMM ), which dropped 0.88%.
The biotechnology and telecommunications sectors were strong Thursday, on good earnings news.
Telecommunications equipment maker Ciena (CIEN ) said it lost $1.75 per share in the fourth quarter. But investors latched on to the battered telecom's projection that first quarter sales could spike 10%, and drove the stock up 19.69%.
More good news for telecom companies: Long-distance giant Sprint (FON ) raised its fourth quarter earnings per share estimate by three cents. Shares in Sprint were trading up 6.76%.
Another sector charging ahead was biotechnology. The largest biotech firm, Amgen (AMGN ), announced it expected 2003 earnings to exceed Wall Street's expectations. Investors pushed Amgen shares up 6.73% for the day.
Shares in biotech Genentech (DNA ) rose on positive preliminary results from tests of new breast cancer treatments. The company's stock finished ahead 3.2% Thursday.
Bad news rocked shares of Bristol-Meyers Squibb (BMY . The pharmaceutical company's stock dropped 6.63% Thursday amid news reports of misleading accounting.
Ketchup king H.J. Heinz (HNZ ) posted second quarter earnings of 60 cents a share, in line with analysts' expectations. The good news drove the stock up slightly.
Agribusiness giant Bunge Ltd. (BG ) substantially raised fourth quarter earnings guidance and shares gained 7.3% by the closing bell.
Crude oil prices rose over 2% to near $28 per barrel, as OPEC, led by Saudi Arabia, imposed new quotas aimed at reducing overall production by its members. Gold prices surged over $6 per ounce to crack the critical $331 level.
Prices for U.S. Treasuries were up modestly Thursday afternoon, as stocks slid. A cheery November retail sales report had knocked prices in the red for most of the morning. Longer-term issues posted higher price gains, as the 10-year note's yield held steady at 4.00%.
"It was a very quiet and lackluster session," noted economic research outfit MMS International, as "geopolitical concerns and a vacillating stock market" eased the earlier pressure on bonds.
European stocks finished down Thursday. In London, the FTSE index fell 39.60 points, or 1.00%, to 3,935.30. Paris' CAC-40 index slipped 52.66, or 1.65%, to 3,137.43. In Frankfurt, the DAX index lost 84.17 points, or 2.63%, to 3,111.88.
In Asia, stocks were mixed. Japan's Nikkei 225 index finished the day down 18.97 points, or 0.22%, to 8,708.69. Trading was spotty in advance of economic data expected on Friday. In Hong Kong, the benchmark Hang Seng index gained 29.21 points, or 0.30%, to 9,813.78.