Stocks mixed as investors eye oil prices

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

NEW YORK -- Stocks finished an uninspiring session mixed Tuesday as investors kept a wary eye on near-record oil prices and debated the prospect of a Social Security reform package without private investment accounts.

One day after reaching record highs, crude oil futures fell below $59 per barrel, but the historically high prices were still weighing on investors' enthusiasm for stocks. A barrel of light crude settled at $58.90, down 47 cents, on the New York Mercantile Exchange.

Some analysts were cheered that stocks have yet to sell off despite higher oil prices, though there are growing worries about whether the market will be able to sustain its gains from May and June should oil prices remain at these levels.

"What we've seen yesterday and today is some hesitancy, some skepticism on the part of investors as to whether the current rally can continue" due to high oil prices, said Ken Tower, chief market strategist for Schwab's CyberTrader. "It's tough to generate a lot of enthusiasm."

Investors were also concerned about the state of Social Security reform after President Bush encouraged Republicans in Congress to introduce a proposal that did not include private accounts favored on Wall Street.

Bonds posted a strong rally after Monday's selloff, with the yield on the 10-year Treasury note falling to 4.05 percent from 4.11 percent late Monday. The dollar was mixed against major foreign currencies, while gold prices fell from Monday's three-month highs.

"You're seeing some bond movement, which kind of brings a little bit of movement to stocks, but really, there's not much going on," said Bryan Piskorowski, market analyst with Wachovia Securites. "There's no real economic data, not a lot of earnings, nothing really here to guide us aside from oil."

The preoccupation with oil led investors to overlook the latest spate of merger news. Wall Street has traditionally found encouragement in mergers and acquisitions, seeing in them a reflection of corporate America's willingness to make investments in growth -- an implicit vote of confidence in the economy.

Appliance maker Maytag Corp. is being courted by two such private investment groups. The company agreed to a $14 per share takeover last month, but its board said late Monday it would review a $16 per share offer by another private group backed by Chinese appliance manufacturer Haier Group. Maytag rose 83 cents to $16.06 on the news.

Unocal Corp. climbed $1.38 to $64.85 on word that Chinese petroleumn company CNOOC Ltd. may issue a $20 billion takeover bid which would surpass Chevron Corp.'s $16.7 billion offer for the company, made in April. Chevron slumped 56 cents to $58.78.

Ford Motor Co. added 6 cents to $11.17 after The New York Post reported interest from a number of private equity groups in a possible acquisition of Ford's Hertz car-rental subsidiary. Ford announced last week that it planned to spin off Hertz.

Commodity stocks were among the market's biggest losers as investors collected profits after the sector's recent move higher. Metals stocks were hit hardest as Nucor Corp. issued a second-quarter profit warning, lowering its forecasts due to weak demand and falling prices. Nucor dropped $2.55 to $50.68, while rival Commercial Metals shed $1.51 to $25.62.

In earnings news, grocery chain Kroger Co. saw its quarterly profits rise 12 percent from a year ago and beat Wall Street's profit forecasts by 6 cents per share. The company also increased its outlook for future earnings. Kroger surged 10 percent, or $1.76, to $19.45.

Homebuilder Lennar Corp. rose $1.34 to $63.41 after the company posted a 21 percent jump in earnings and beat analysts' profit expectations by 20 cents per share. Strong sales and record backlog of housing orders prompted the company to raise its 2005 profit forecasts as well.

Declining issues outnumbered advancers by about 9 to 8 on the New York Stock Exchange, where consolidated volume came to 1.73 billion shares, compared to 1.74 billion traded Monday.

The Russell 2000 index of smaller companies was down 0.80, or 0.12 percent, at 641.04.

Overseas, Japan's Nikkei stock average rose 0.05 percent. In Europe, Britain's FTSE 100 closed up 0.2 percent, France's CAC-40 climbed 0.68 percent for the session, and Germany's DAX index gained 0.46 percent.

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