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Weak Treasury auction sends US stocks lower

WEAK demand at a Treasury bond auction touched off worries in the stock market yesterday about the government's ability to raise funds to fight the recession.

The government had to pay greater interest than expected in a sale of 30-year Treasury. That is worrisome to traders because it could signal that it will become harder for Washington to finance its ambitious economic recovery plans. The higher interest rates also could push up costs for borrowing in areas like mortgages.

Investors also pocketed some gains after strong rally in stocks this week and ahead of the government's April employment report on Friday. Investors were jittery ahead of the formal release of results from the government's "stress tests" of bank balance sheets, which came out later yesterday.

Major stocks market indicators slid more than 1 percent, including the Dow Jones industrial average which lost 102 points after gaining nearly the same amount Wednesday.

Stocks fell almost from the start of trading as investors quickly looked past upbeat reports on the job market and retail sales as traders asked "What's next?" and cut back their holdings following what had been a 4.8 percent gain this week in the Standard & Poor's 500 index.

Analysts said investors are already starting to expect economic numbers that aren't as bad as they had been and are now looking for the next catalyst that could take stocks higher after a surge of more than 30 percent from 12-year lows in early March.

"This is a market that is starting to bake in a lot of positive surprises," said Craig Peckham, a market strategist at Jefferies & Co.

The Dow fell 102.43, or 1.2 percent, to 8,409.85 a day after the blue chips jumped 102 points to close above the 8,500 level for the first time in four months. The index is down 4.2 percent for the year.

The S&P 500 index fell 12.14, or 1.3 percent, to 907.39, and the Nasdaq composite index fell 42.86, or 2.4 percent, to 1,716.24.

Technology shares posted the biggest losses yesterday after security software maker Symantec Corp. posted weaker-than-expected results. Retailers were mixed even after many of them, including Wal-Mart Stores Inc., reported better-than-expected April sales.

"The fact that we're seeing the retailers sell off on these positive surprises suggests the bar has been raised on what companies need to do to take stocks higher," Peckham said.

Wal-Mart said sales of Easter merchandise and more shoppers in its stores helped its sales jump 5 percent, much more than the 2.9 percent rise analysts had forecast. Wal-Mart rose 80 cents to US$50.31.

The well-being of retailers is key to the economy because consumer spending accounts for more than two-thirds of economic activity.

Symantec reported a loss for its fiscal 2009 fourth quarter, hurt by a hefty goodwill impairment charge and lower-than-expected revenue. The stock fell US$2.60, or 14.8 percent, to US$14.99.

Financial stocks mostly fell after big gains Wednesday and ahead of the government report cards on banks. The tests, designed to determine which banks would need a stronger capital base if the economy weakens, are at the crux of the Obama administration's plan to fortify the financial system. The market rallied this week ahead of the results, despite some initial concerns that the tests would show more pain in the industry.

Citigroup Inc. fell 5 cents to US$3.81, while Bank of America Corp. rose 82 cents, or 6.5 percent, to US$13.51. Regions Financial Corp. fell 60 cents, or 10.3 percent, to US$5.23, while Wells Fargo & Co. fell US$2.33, or 8.7 percent, to US$24.51.

Two stocks fell for every one that rose on the New York Stock Exchange, where volume came to a heavy 2 billion shares.

"Today was a little dose of reality and maybe a little fear coming back into the market," said Joe Saluzzi, co-head of equity trading at Themis Trading LLC.

Saluzzi said investors shouldn't mistake the strong trading volume seen this week as a sign of conviction behind the moves. He said an absence of the big block trades that large financial firms make suggests the trading is more speculative, particularly in financial stocks.

"The real investor needs to be careful," he said.

In economic news, new applications for unemployment benefits fell last week to the lowest level in 14 weeks. The Labor Department's tally of new jobless claims fell to 601,000 from 631,000 the previous week, well below the 635,000 economists had been expecting. A four-week moving average of initial jobless claims that smooths out fluctuations fell from a high in early April.

The employment reading follows a better-than-expected private snapshot of the labor market on Wednesday and comes a day ahead of the government's April employment report. It is often regarded as the most important economic news each month because a drop in unemployment could bolster everything from banks to retailers if consumers can continue to make mortgage payments and go shopping.

There were also reports showing that productivity rebounded slightly in the first quarter while wage pressures eased.

In other trading, the Russell 2000 index of smaller companies fell 12.15, or 2.4 percent, to 492.94.


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