Stocks mixed after conflicting economic reports

Thursday , May 03, 2012 - 11:44 AM

Daniel Wagner

Wall Street gnawed on a muddle of economic data and corporate earnings Thursday, pushing stocks lower after a brief rise.

Fears about the strength of the American consumer reared up early after big retailers such as Costco, Macy's and Target posted disappointing April sales. Colder temperatures and renewed worries about the economy weighed on Americans.

The government said worker productivity fell sharply in the first three months of the year. That's a mixed sign, auguring higher costs for businesses but holding out the promise of renewed hiring.

The labor market has been on traders' minds all week; the big April jobs report is due out Friday. In the final major indicator before that announcement, the government said that the number of people applying for unemployment benefits fell last week by the most in three months.

GM shares fell 2 percent in early trading after the automaker said its first-quarter profit declined, mainly on losses in Europe. When people worry about whether Europe's debt crisis will spill over into the U.S., one of the major threats is that the European recession will harm sales by big American exporters such as GM and Caterpillar.

Major stock indexes lacked direction, opening lower then rising slightly in the first 15 minutes of trading. In the first hour, they took a clear turn downward, with losses for all 10 industries in the Standard & Poor's 500 index and 25 of the 30 stocks in the Dow Jones industrial average.

The Dow fell 36 points to 13,232. The S&P 500 dropped 5 points to 1,397. The Nasdaq composite index lost 11 to 3,048.

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