Energy Stocks Push Wall Street Lower

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Weighed down by poorly performing energy stocks, the Dow and S&P 500 failed to shake off modest losses.

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Today's Markets

The Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 45.6 points, or 0.35%, to 13125, the S&P 500 dipped 2.6 points, or 0.19%, to 1403 and the Nasdaq Composite climbed 1.2 points, or 0.04%, to 3075.

The Energy Select Sector SPDR (NYSE:XLE), which is a gauge of the sector's performance, shed 1.2%, with members like Schlumberger (NYSE:SLB), the world's biggest oilfield servicing firm, taking a sizeable blow. Adding to the downward pressure in that area, Baker Hughes (NYSE:BHI), a Texas-based oilfield major, pared back its first-quarter profit projection.

Consumer staples, such as Colgate Palmolive (NYSE:CL), posted mild gains.

Looking at the blue chips, Caterpillar (NYSE:CAT), the world's biggest heavy machinery company, and oil giant Chevron (NYSE:CVX), both fell by more than 1%, costing the blue-chip average some 22.2 points combined. Helping to counteract those losses were rising shares of Coca-Cola (NYSE:KO), Home Depot (NYSE:HD) and IBM (NYSE:IBM).

Sales of existing, single-family U.S. homes fell 0.9% in February to an annualized rate of 4.59 million units, slightly less than the 4.62 million rate expected, according to the National Association of Realtors. The group said 34% of sales were of distressed, one percentage lower than in January.

A separate report on Tuesday showed permits to build new homes hitting the highest level since October 2008 during the month of February.

The housing market has begun to show some signs of improvement, but still remains very fragile. To that end, the Federal Reserve has held interest rates at extraordinarily low levels in a bid to keep mortgage and other loan rates down and boost the embattled sector. Still, it remains a soft spot of the U.S. economy.

Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke told the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on Wednesday that the European debt crisis still poses a threat to large U.S. financial institutions and money market funds. While the crisis has faded from the headlines in recent weeks, analysts at several large investment banks have repeatedly noted that the debt situation in numerous big eurozone countries, namely Italy and Spain, could still stir trouble in the 17-member currency bloc.

On the corporate front, Hewlett-Packard (NYSE:HPQ) unveiled plans a corporate restructuring in which it will merge its personal computer and printer groups. The combined entity will be led by Todd Bradley, who ran the PC group.

Oracle (NASDAQ:ORCL) posted third-quarter results after the close of trading on Tuesday that zipped past Wall Street's expectations on the top and bottom lines. The software company's shares were up more than 2%. General Mills (NYSE:GIS), the maker of Cheerios, also delivered a sales and profit beat ahead of the opening bell in New York.

Hartford Financial Group (NYSE:HIG) said it would exit the annuities business and mull the sale of its life insurance group as it focuses its property-insurance business amid pressure from hedge fund mogul and major shareholder John Paulson.

U.S. Treasuries fell rose on the heels of the first gain in six days for the safe-haven asset. The 10-year yield fell 0.078-percentage point to 2.296%.

Oil inventories unexpectedly fell last week, the Energy Department said, while gasoline stocks dipped slightly less than expected. In general, lower supply levels tend to be bullish for prices, while higher levels are bearish. Energy futures held on to slight gains following the report.

The benchmark crude oil contract traded in New York jumped $1.20, or 1.1%, to $107.27 a barrel. Wholesale New York Harbor gasoline dipped 0.18% to $3.36 a gallon.

In metals, gold gained $3.30, or 0.2%, to $1,650 a troy once.

Foreign Markets

European blue chips were down 0.35%, the English FTSE 100 edged higher by 0.01% to 5892 and the German DAX climbed 0.23% to 7071.

In Asia, the Japanese Nikkei 225 slumped 0.55% to 10086 and the Chinese Hang Seng ticked lower by 0.15% to 20857.

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