NEW YORK -- Wall Street edged modestly lower Wednesday, closing a turbulent quarter on a down note as the government reported weaker-than-expected growth in the manufacturing sector and OPEC signaled it would move ahead with a planned production cut.
The Dow Jones industrials and the Nasdaq composite index ended the first three months of 2004 with losses, while the Standard & Poor's 500 index posted a modest gain. All three gauges were down for the month of March.
Investors sought safer positions after two days of robust gains, and ahead of a much-anticipated jobs report due Friday. In addition, the Institute for Supply Management was set to release its report on manufacturing activity today.
"People are a little afraid to step out ahead of those two numbers, especially after the magnitude of these two days of gains," said Russ Koesterich, U.S. equity strategist with State Street Corp. in Boston. "You've had a nice run-up since last week's lows, so it's time to take a little bit off the table."
The Dow closed down 24.00, or 0.2 percent, at 10,357.70, after adding 168 points in the previous two sessions.
The broader gauges were also fractionally lower. The Nasdaq declined 6.41, or 0.3 percent, to 1,994.22. The S&P 500 lost 0.79, or 0.1 percent, to finish at 1,126.21.
The major indexes started March in positive positions, but a tumultuous correction left them all negative for the month. The Dow sank 2.1 percent, the Nasdaq shed 1.8 percent and the S&P 500 fell 1.6 percent.
Stocks were mixed for the quarter. The Dow gave back 0.9 percent and the Nasdaq dropped 0.5 percent, but the S&P 500 advanced 1.3 percent.
Low factory orders
The Commerce Department reported a 0.3 percent rise in factory orders for February, a welcome bounce after January's 0.9 percent drop. The rebound wasn't as strong as the 1.5 percent increase economists had forecast, however.
Demand for "durable" goods -- costly manufactured products such as automobiles, household appliances and computers -- rose by 2.5 percent in February. But "nondurable" goods, such as food and clothing, fell 2 percent.
Economic reports have shown manufacturing improving, but many factories are operating below capacity and jobs are continuing to evaporate. Months of sluggish labor market growth has made investors nervous about the recovery, and a great deal of significance has been attached to the government's March report on job creation.
Meanwhile, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, which pumps about a third of the world's oil, signaled Thursday that it would go ahead with a scheduled 4 percent production cut, despite surging fuel costs.
Analysts said the move could drive crude oil prices above $40 a barrel, which would mean higher costs at the pump for U.S. drivers.
Traders had anticipated OPEC would carry out the cuts, and oil futures for May fell 49 cents to $35.76 per barrel Wednesday. High fuel costs remains a top concern on Wall Street, however, and may become a key issue in the presidential election.
"The problem with oil is it's a political football as well as a financial input right now," said Brian Pears, head equity trader at Victory Capital Management in Cleveland. "That will keep it on everybody's minds no matter what happens to the price per barrel."
Some individual stocks posted gains as companies continued to release upbeat forecasts for the current quarter, ahead of formal results in the coming weeks. Analysts say strong corporate earnings could help the market move past its current doldrums.
Best Buy Co. closed up $3.32, or 6.9 percent, at $51.72, after reporting fourth-quarter profits that beat Wall Street expectations. The consumer electronics retailer raised its outlook for the current quarter and reiterated its forecast for the year.
Its rival, Circuit City Stores Inc., added 60 cents, or 5.6 percent, to close at $11.30, after posting a rise in fourth-quarter net income due to cost cutting, but results for the year fell short of expectations. The company also announced plans to acquire InterTAN Inc., an Ontario-based chain of stores and MusicNow Inc., an online digital music service.
On the Nasdaq, software maker QLogic Corp. was down $9.69, or 23 percent, at $33.00, after saying it expects a revenue shortfall for the fourth quarter due to declining orders from manufacturers and a drop in sales of its storage network components. A number of brokerage firms cut the company's rating.
Advancing issues outnumbered decliners about 3 to 2 on the New York Stock Exchange. Consolidated volume came to 2.03 billion shares, compared with 1.7 billion shares traded Tuesday.
The Russell 2000 index, which tracks smaller company stocks, was up 0.91, or 0.2 percent, at 590.31.
Overseas, Japan's Nikkei stock average finished 0.2 percent higher Wednesday. In Europe, France's CAC-40 closed up 0.1 percent, Britain's FTSE 100 lost 0.6 percent and Germany's DAX index declined 0.5 percent.