(Richard Drew ~ Associated Press)
The Dow Jones industrial average fell almost 40 points after the Fed released its regional survey of the economy, a report known as the "beige book." The Fed said economic growth has been steady during the summer in Cleveland and Kansas City, but has slowed in Atlanta and Chicago. The central bank described economic activity elsewhere as modest.
The report had some sobering news about manufacturing, which had been one of the strongest parts of the economy. While manufacturing expanded in most of the Fed's 12 regions, about half -- New York, Cleveland, Kansas City, Chicago, Atlanta and Richmond -- said manufacturing had "slowed" or "leveled off."
Investors weren't surprised by the Fed report, but they also didn't like hearing their own downbeat assessment of the economy confirmed by the central bank.
"It does reiterate that the economy is not bouncing back as much as we would hope," Ryan Detrick, senior technical strategist chairman of Schaeffer's Investment Research, said of the beige book.
But Detrick also said the report gave investors an excuse to cash in some of their gains from the market's rally late last week and early this week. The Dow rose almost 420 points in four days as investors bought stocks in response to companies' strong second-quarter earnings and upbeat forecasts for the rest of the year.
The Fed survey followed a Commerce Department durable goods orders report early in the day. Orders for durable goods, which are expected to last at least three years, fell 1 percent in June. Economists expected a 1 percent gain.
Investors have been trying in recent weeks to balance strong earnings and corporate outlooks with economic data that isn't as encouraging. A larger-than-expected drop in consumer confidence Tuesday helped push stocks mostly lower although another batch of robust earnings reports came out.
The Dow fell 39.81, or 0.4 percent, to 10,497.88. The Standard & Poor's 500 index fell 7.71, or 0.7 percent, to 1,106.13, while the Nasdaq composite index fell 23.69, or 1 percent, to 2,264.56.
Two stocks fell for every one that rose on the New York Stock Exchange, where volume came to 1 billion shares. Volume has been light even by summer standards, which has added to the day-to-day volatility. Many investors have been staying out of the market while they try to get a clearer sense of how the economy is faring.
Treasury prices, which get a boost from bad economic news, rose after the beige book was released. That sent interest rates lower. The yield on the 10-year Treasury note, which moves opposite its price, fell to 3 percent from 3.05 percent compared with late Tuesday. That yield helps set interest rates on mortgages and other consumer loans.
David Hefty, CEO of Cornerstone Wealth Management, said many investors are waiting for the government's report on gross domestic product, the broadest measure of how the economy is doing, before making any big investing moves.