Stocks finish flat over concerns about retail sales, oil prices

Thursday, December 27, 2007

NEW YORK -- Stocks finished largely flat Wednesday as investors returned from the Christmas holiday to news of weaker-than-expected retail sales. A jump in oil prices also concerned Wall Street.

The International Council of Shopping Centers said its index of retail chain store sales rose 2.8 percent last week, rounding out a sluggish December performance that puts merchants on track for a smaller sales gain than the trade group originally expected. Still, there is some hope sales will rebound as shoppers start spending with holiday gift cards.

Other reports released alongside Christmas proved disappointing. Target Corp. indicated its sales may have fallen in December, while MasterCard Inc. said holiday spending -- including credit, cash and checks -- climbed a modest 3.6 percent between Thanksgiving and Christmas, weighed by a slowdown in sales of women's apparel. That compares with a rise of 6.6 percent over the same period last year. The 2007 holiday figure is at the low end of its 3.5 percent to 4.5 percent range. Excluding gasoline and auto sales, that figure was 2.4 percent.

The news could raise concerns about the strength of consumer spending and, in turn, the economy. However, it has been widely expected that holiday sales would be slow.

Kim Caughey, senior equity analyst at Fort Pitt Capital Group in Pittsburgh, said reports on retail had upended some investors' hopes for strong consumer spending in the long weekend before Christmas.

"From the quick analysis it doesn't look like it was a great year. I think investors had held out hope that retail might have had that final flourish. It was a sad flourish, not a strong one," she said.

The Dow Jones industrial average rose 2.36, or 0.02 percent, to 13,551.69.

Caughey said rising oil prices likely pressured stocks but noted that the light trading volume seen in both Monday's and Wednesday's sessions meant investors shouldn't focus too much on the market's moves.

"I don't know if the direction means anything but the magnitude does," she said. "A little bit of sentiment goes a long way on light trading days."

But for those investors examining the markets, the holidays loomed large as Wall Street looked for signals about the consumer but also insights about the broader economy.

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