Stocks are mixed despite strong retail sales

Tuesday , March 18, 2014 - 12:34 PM

Christina Rexrode

NEW YORK— Americans might still be shopping, but it’s not enough to propel the market out of its doldrums.

The Dow Jones industrial average rose early Monday but other stock indexes fell. The Dow climbed 51 points to 12,900 as of 11 a.m. The Standard & Poor’s 500 fell three to 1,368 and the Nasdaq composite fell 26 points to 2,985.

The mixed results were the product of a tug of war between competing indicators about the global economy: surprisingly strong U.S. retail sales on one side, and worrisome signs about Europe’s economy, including higher borrowing costs for Spain, on the other.

Retail sales rose 0.8 percent in March from the month before, the government reported, twice as much as analysts were expecting. Skeptics noted that the results were still less than February’s 1 percent increase. They also wondered if the results were a quirk of the mild winter, not necessarily a sign of recovery. People are buying lawn mowers, spring dresses and other warm-weather goods earlier in the year, which could mean those sales will soon peter out rather than enjoy their usual spring jump.

The category that enjoyed the biggest jump was the seasonally-driven building materials, at 3 percent.

"It’s nice to see the retail sales were strong, but it’s one month and it’s one data point and it’s not even the biggest data point," said Ryan Detrick, senior technical strategist at Schaeffer’s Investment Research in Cincinnati. "Honestly, jobs are much more important."

Earlier this month, the government reported that the U.S. added only 120,000 jobs in March, about half the pace of the previous three months. It’s too soon to tell if that number is an outlier or a sign of deeper problems, but it’s been dragging the market down since then.

Signs that Europe’s debt crisis could reignite have also hurt stocks. On Monday Spain’s borrowing costs climbed above the closely watched 6 percent mark, which means investors are worried about the country’s ability to pay its debts. Seven percent is usually considered the rate at which a country can no longer raise money. Sweden cuts its economic forecast for the year, saying that the euro zone’s problems were spreading its way.

Banks were among the biggest gainers in the S&P 500. Citigroup rose more than 2 percent after reporting earnings. The bank missed analysts’ income forecasts but also said more customers are repaying their loans on time.

That was a change from Friday. Wells Fargo and JPMorgan Chase beat analysts’ forecasts then, but bank stocks fell broadly as investors worried over future problems like lawsuits against the banks and a plodding economy that isn’t generating much demand for loans.

Mattel plummeted more than 7 percent after reporting a 53 percent drop in first-quarter earnings. The country’s largest toy maker is wrestling with lower sales of Hot Wheels and Barbies, and is also digesting its recent purchase of HIT Entertainment, the company behind Thomas the Tank Engine and Bob the Builder.

The yield on the 10-year Treasury note fell to 1.96 percent. That means investors are plowing money into government bonds, which they tend to do when they’re nervous about the economy.

It’s been a dismal two weeks for the stock market. Ever since the second quarter started, stocks have been yanked around by concerns about Europe and fears that the Federal Reserve will stop pumping money into the economy. Investors are wondering if the gains of the first quarter were just an aberration, without the economic fundamentals to support them.

The three major indexes are all still up for the year, but about a fifth of their gains have been wiped out in the past two weeks, the market’s worst of the year. The losses come in volatile trading: In the nine trading days since the second quarter began, the Dow has fallen by triple digits on four days and risen by triple digits on one.

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