Jan. 26 (Bloomberg) -- U.S. stocks fell, reversing a rally that sent the Dow Jones Industrial Average toward its highest level since 2008 earlier today, as banks tumbled and a report showed that sales of new homes unexpectedly declined.
Banks had the biggest drop in the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index among 24 groups on concern about the industry’s ability to boost profits after the Federal Reserve yesterday pledged to keep the benchmark interest rate low. Wells Fargo & Co. and Fifth Third Bancorp slumped at least 3 percent. PulteGroup Inc. and Lennar Corp. retreated more than 2.3 percent to pace losses in homebuilders. AT&T Inc., the largest U.S. phone company, slid 2.5 percent as its profit forecast trailed estimates.
The S&P 500 lost 0.6 percent to 1,318.43 at 4 p.m. New York time, reversing a gain of as much as 0.6 percent. The Dow fell 22.33 points, or 0.2 percent, to 12,734.63, after earlier rising to the highest level on a closing basis since May 2008.
“It’s a little bit of cold water in the face,” Bruce McCain, who helps oversee more than $20 billion as chief investment strategist at the private-banking unit of KeyCorp in Cleveland, said in a telephone interview. “We’re in risk territory because we’ve come a long way in the market and in terms of optimism on the economy. It’s premature to think that we’ve solved all problems.”
The S&P 500 has risen 4.8 percent so far this year, poised for the best January since it gained 6.1 percent during the first month of 1997, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Stocks are extending the measure’s 11 percent rally in the October-December period, its best fourth-quarter increase since 2003, as improvements in hiring, manufacturing and home sales bolstered confidence in the world’s largest economy.
Equities reversed gains today after a report showed that sales of new U.S. homes unexpectedly declined in December for the first time in four months, capping the slowest year on record for builders. Claims for U.S. jobless benefits rose last week, displaying the usual volatility around holidays that has masked an improvement in the labor market. Orders for U.S. durable goods advanced more than forecast in December.
Benchmark gauges rose yesterday as the Fed signaled low rates through at least late 2014 and didn’t rule out bond purchases to bolster the economy. Investors also watched earnings reports. Of the 151 S&P 500 companies that reported results since Jan. 9, 103 posted per-share earnings that beat projections, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
A measure of banks in the S&P 500 slumped 3.3 percent. Wells Fargo lost 3.8 percent to $29.05. Fifth Third Bancorp slid 3 percent to $13.08.
The Fed’s low interest rate pledge may hurt lenders’ profits as they struggle to find loans or securities with yields high enough to support their net interest margins, a gauge of profitability that measures the difference between the cost of funds and what they earn on assets.
“The statement itself was market friendly in terms of reiterating that the Fed is going to remain largely accommodative,” Ryan Larson, Chicago-based head of U.S. equity trading at RBC Global Asset Management (U.S.) Inc., said in a telephone interview. His firm oversees $250 billion in assets. “When you talk about the banking environment and some of these companies that are directly tied to interest rates, it’s going to probably put a cap on some of those companies going forward until rates start to increase.”
A gauge of homebuilders in S&P indexes slumped 3.4 percent. PulteGroup retreated 2.4 percent to $7.80. Lennar decreased 2.9 percent to $22.13.
AT&T lost 2.5 percent to $29.45, the biggest decline in the Dow. The carrier projected “mid-single-digit or better earnings growth” for 2012. Analysts predicted 11 percent on average. AT&T also reported a fourth-quarter net loss of $6.68 billion because of a pretax charge of about $4 billion for the failed takeover of T-Mobile USA, and expenses for revaluing benefit plans and other assets.
E*Trade Financial Corp. tumbled 15 percent, the most in the S&P 500, to $7.99 after the online brokerage reported results that missed analyst estimates and Sandler O’Neill & Partners LP cut its rating.
SanDisk Corp. dropped 11 percent to $46.39. The biggest maker of flash-memory cards gave a sales forecast that fell short of estimates, citing lower prices for chips that store data in mobile phones.
Caterpillar Inc. rallied 2.1 percent, the biggest gain in the Dow, to $111.31. The largest construction and mining-equipment maker posted fourth-quarter earnings and forecast full-year profit that topped analysts’ estimates as demand rose for shovels and trucks.
3M Co. added 1.3 percent to $87.58. The maker of Post-it Notes and fuel system tuneup kits reported higher profit than analysts had estimated as demand increased for aerospace and auto industry products.
Netflix Inc. surged 22 percent, the most since January 2010, to $116.01. The online and mail-order video-rental service reported fourth-quarter profit that topped analysts’ estimates and forecast improving margins in its streaming business.
J.C. Penney Co. climbed 19 percent to $40.72 after saying cost reductions from new Chief Executive Officer Ron Johnson’s turnaround plan may boost 2012 profit more than analysts estimated.
Time Warner Cable Inc. advanced 7.8 percent, the biggest gain since April 2009, to $74.51. The second-largest U.S. cable-television provider reported fourth-quarter profit that beat analysts’ estimates and said it would repurchase $4 billion in shares.
“The backdrop that is coming forth is a nightmare for those who are way underinvested,” Jeffrey Saut, chief investment strategist at Raymond James & Associates in St. Petersburg, Florida, said in a phone interview. His firm manages $300 billion. “Earnings continue to come in better than expected, our economy is improving. In addition, it looks like the ‘euro-quake’ situation appears at least in the short term to be on the backburner.”
European stocks advanced, climbing 20 percent from a September low and entering a bull market. The Stoxx Europe 600 Index added 1.1 percent to 257.86 today.
The S&P 500’s best January rally since 1997 has pushed a pair of momentum and sentiment gauges to levels seen only 6 percent of the time since 1993, a sign the market is due for a pullback, BTIG LLC said.
The benchmark index’s 14-day relative strength index, which measures the degree that gains and losses outpace each other, rose above 70 yesterday for the first time since Feb. 18, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Some technical analysts consider RSI readings above 70 a sign that stocks have risen too far, too fast. The Chicago Board Options Exchange Volatility Index, a gauge known as the VIX, fell below 20 for the first time since July on Jan. 19.
The last time RSI exceeded 70 while the VIX stayed below 20, 11 months ago, the S&P 500 reached a 32-month high before dropping 6.4 percent over the next month, data compiled by Bloomberg show. The VIX is the benchmark gauge of S&P 500 options prices.
“We’re definitely in a rare spot,” Josh Dollinger, Chief quantitative and technical strategist at BTIG in New York, said in a telephone interview. “These are extreme readings. They more often than not prove to be exhaustion tops.”
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