Stocks Finish Lower

Thursday brings fresh reads on construction spending, auto sales, and weekly jobless claims

Stocks finished lower Wednesday as a late-day rebound faded. For most of the session, fear of rising gasoline prices and a weak rebound in manufacturing had investors selling.

The Dow Jones industrial average lost 24 points, or 0.23%, to 10,357.70. The broader Standard & Poor's 500-stock index shed 0.79 point, or 0.07%, to 1,126.21. The tech-heavy Nasdaq composite index fell 6.41 points, or 0.32%, to 1,994.22.

High prices for crude oil and gasoline are making Wall Street nervous. In late morning trading, energy futures, which had surged in anticipation an OPEC production cut, headed lower as the cartel confirmed the move. Earlier strength was attributable to an explosion at BP's Texas refinery, the third largest refinery in the U.S., and in anticipation of OPEC's decision.

Investors got a slew of earnings news to digest on Wednesday.

Consumer electronics retailer Best Buy (BBY ) said quarterly profit rose sharply on year-end demand for computers, CDs, flat-panel TVs and home office goods. Profit in the fourth-quarter ended Mar. 1 was $469 million, or $1.42 a share, up from $378 million, or $1.16 a share.

Rival Circuit City (CC ), which has been trying to turn itself around, said profit in the fiscal fourth quarter ended Feb. 29 rose to $89.6 million, or 43 cents a share, from $70.9 million, or 34 cents a share, a year ago. It also announced it would buy Canadian chain InterTan and online music shop MusicNow.

Seed and chemicals maker Monsanto (MON ) said quarterly profit rose on increased corn seed sales and higher revenues from its biotech seed products. Second-quarter net grew to $154 million, or 57 cents a diluted share, from $100 million, or 38 cents a share, a year earlier.

In other company news, drug company Eli Lilly (LLY ) said that U.S. regulators approved an injectable form of Zyprexa, for schizophrenia, after a long delay because of manufacturing problems. Merrill Lynch upgraded the stock to buy from neutral.

The former chief financial officer of McKesson (MCK ) was indicted Tuesday on conspiracy and securities fraud charges in a scheme to inflate the drug wholesaler's earnings.

In economic news, the Chicago PMI, a manufacturing index, fell to 57.6 in March, compared to an expectation of 61, and down from 63.6 in February. The gauge, when exceeding 50, indicates expansion.

The employment component of the Chicago PMI dropped sharply, to 49.2 from 54.8 in February. The fall was especially disappointing, indicating contraction, and caused concern that the March employment report on Friday would fall short.

Factory orders increased 0.3% in February, lower than economists' average expectation of an rise of 1.5%.

UBS economists are forecasting a drop in the overall manufacturing ISM index to 57.0 in March from 61.4 in February.

On Thursday, investors get updates on construction spending, auto sales and weekly jobless claims. Reports on the producer price index and nonfarm payrolls for March -- the week's most widely anticipated economic release -- are set for Friday.

Europe's Central Bank will meet Thursday to discuss interest rate policy for European Union countries.

Earnings news Thursday will be light. Luxury retailer Gucci Group (GUC ) and home goods retailer Pier 1 Imports (PIR ) are due to report.

Treasury Market

Treasuries finished higher in price Wednesday. Initial gains came after the weaker than expected Chicago PMI report. The markets settled down after a rumor that Fed chief Alan Greenspan had a heart attack proved untrue. Prices retreated soon after, but late in the session a misleading headline suggesting Fannie Mae may restate earnings, in addition to month-end buying, rallied prices to the highs into the close.

World Markets

European stock markets ended mixed Wednesday amid solid payrolls data and expectations for profit growth among first quarter earnings updates. London's Financial Times-Stock Exchange 100 index lost 27.10 points, or 0.61%, to 4,385.70.

Germany's DAX index fell 17.34 points, or 0.45%, to 3,856.70. In Paris, the CAC 40 increased 5.13 points, or 0.14%, to 3,625.23.

In Asia, markets finished higher. The Nikkei 225 index gained 21.71 points, or 0.19%, to 11,715.39, amid growing hope that the Japanese economy is recovering despite the rise in the yen. In Hong Kong, the Hang Seng index added 40.28 points, or 0.32%, to 12,681.67.

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