Stocks close mixed

Thursday, March 21, 2002

AP Business WriterNEW YORK (AP) -- Investors locked in profits from blue chips for a second straight session Thursday, selling on concerns about rising interest rates. But some cautious bargain hunting, which increased gradually throughout the afternoon, allowed the tech sector to make a solid advance and saved the Dow industrials from a triple-digit loss incurred in earlier trading.

Analysts said investors have conflicted emotions about the economy. While investors believe the economy is strengthening, they are worried that interest rates will rise before business fully improves.

The Dow closed down 21.73, or 0.2 percent, at 10,479.84, an improvement over an earlier, 146.83-point loss, according to preliminary calculations. The Dow dropped 133.68 Wednesday on worries that the Fed will soon start raising interest rates.

"The sellers exhausted themselves," said Kevin Caron, associate strategist at Gruntal & Co. "The bigger picture is that there is recovery in the economy. We will see a shift to more positive days than negative days. ... If the Fed raises rates a point or two it's not going to choke off an expansion."

The broader market finished higher. The Nasdaq composite index rose 35.96, or 2.0 percent, to 1,868.83 after falling 48 on Wednesday.

The Standard & Poor's 500 index advanced 1.74, or 0.2 percent, to 1,153.59.

Selling was stronger earlier in the session as investors continued to worry about rising interest rates. Those concerns stemmed from the Fed hinting of that possibility on Tuesday.

The Fed, which left rates unchanged Tuesday, made 11 such cuts last year to stimulate the economy and end the first recession in more than a decade. Now, the central bank is concerned that the recovery might come too fast.

Investors were also down about several disappointing economic reports.

Analysts said Thursday's biggest economic blow was a smaller-than-expected increase in the Philadelphia Federal Reserve's business index, which is considered a harbinger for the national economy. The index's reading for March was 11.4, which still indicates an expansion in business but missed the 18 level that analysts were expecting and was below February's reading of 16.

Meanwhile, the Labor Department Report said consumer inflation rose a mild 0.2 percent in February.

And, the New York-based Conference Board reported that its index of leading economic indicators remained flat in February, ending a four-month rise and missing analysts' projection of a 0.1 percent gain.

Still, analysts said some selling was to be expected following stocks' solid advance beginning in February. The Dow has had five weeks of gains.

"Investors have gotten too bullish, and whenever the market reaches excessive levels there is some pullback," said Gary Kaltbaum, market technician for Investors' Edge Partners.

One of the Dow's biggest losers was General Electric, down $1.35 at $37.45 on criticism of its GE Capital unit's reliance on short-term debt. The criticism came from the manager of Pacific Investment Management Co., the country's largest bond fund.

Interest rate sensitive blue chips, including financial and retailing issues, also fell. American Express fell 82 cents to $41.02, while electronics retailer Best Buy declined $1.04 to $79.01.

But consumer products stocks, which are relatively more stable in uncertain economies, moved higher. Philip Morris rose $1.28 to $53.31, while Procter & Gamble gained 80 cents to $90.40.

Technology also managed to climb higher, which analysts attributed to the fact that the sector hasn't advanced as sharply as blue chips over the past month.

Dow industrial Intel rose 87 cents to $31.40, recouping some of its $1.19 loss from Wednesday, when Salomon Smith Barney lowered its earnings and revenue estimates on the chip maker.

Microsoft gained $1.26 to $61.36, and IBM advanced $1.28 to $106.78. Both are also Dow stocks.

But Apple Computer fell 65 cents to $24.27 after J.P. Morgan Chase lowered its 2002 earnings estimates on the company. Additionally, Apple announced it was raising prices on its new iMac computers by $100 each, citing an increase in component costs.

Declining issues outnumbered advancers 8 to 7 on the New York Stock Exchange. Trading volume was moderate.

The Russell 2000 index, the barometer of smaller company stocks, advanced 6.40, or 1.3 percent, to 505.44.

Stocks were lower in Europe as France's CAC-40 lost 0.5 percent, while Germany's DAX index and Britain's FT-SE 100 each declined 0.3 percent.

The Tokyo stock market was closed Thursday for a national holiday.


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