NEW YORK -- Wall Street finished a strong week little changed Friday after investors looked past weaker-than-expected economic readings and focused on the ramifications of the Federal Reserve's decision on interest rates next week.
Stocks initially fell sharply Friday following a government report that August retail sales excluding automobiles declined precipitously. The report suggested consumers held off spending in the face of turmoil in the financial markets, an unwelcome development that some on Wall Street are hoping could be reversed by a rate cut. Some investors regarded the readings as supporting the case for a rate cut when Fed policy makers meet Tuesday.
"Emotions are running fairly high," said Robert Schaeffer, vice president at Becker Capital Management Inc. in Portland, Ore. "I think you're seeing a lot of normal gyrations in anticipation of whatever the Fed does. They're looking at the economic data and trying to cipher out of that how that's going to impact the Fed's decision next week," he said of investors.
Investors eventually set aside some of their concerns and the Dow Jones industrial average finished up 17.64, or 0.13 percent, at 13,442.52 after being down as much as 100 points early in the session. The advance gave the blue chip index a gain of 2.5 percent for the week -- the Dow's biggest weekly point gain since April.
Wall Street seemed to wrestle with how the readings might affect the Fed's stance on interest rates. The central bank has left the benchmark fed funds rate unchanged at 5.25 percent for more than year after a string of increases and hasn't cut rates since 2003. Many on Wall Street expect a cut and are debating whether it will be a quarter percentage point or a half percentage point.
While a cut would make some borrowing less expensive, not all costs would necessarily come down.
"Everyone expects the Fed to cut. I guess one of our concerns is the feeling the market has that either the Fed or the government can legislate prosperity," said Denis Amato, chief investment officer at Ancora Advisors in Cleveland. "The Fed can sometimes dampen volatility but they can't create prosperity by pumping money into the system. At some point they have to let some of these excesses play out," he said, referring to trouble in the housing market and tighter access to credit.