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The broad S&P 500 ended in negative territory for the third session in a row as traders grappled with disappointing economic data and heavy losses in crude oil futures.
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The Dow Jones Industrial Average rose 19.6 points, or 0.15%, to 13146, the S&P 500 slipped 2.3 points, or 0.16%, to 1403 and the Nasdaq Composite dipped 9.6 points, or 0.31%, to 3095.
In stark contrast to the last session, financials were the worst performers on the day by a wide margin. Indeed, Bank of America (NYSE:BAC), American Express (NYSE:AXP) and JPMorgan Chase (NYSE:JPM) were among the Dow's laggards. Utilities like Consolidated Edison (NYSE:ED) and basic materials companies like Alcoa (NYSE:AA) posted a relatively strong performance.
The world's largest economy has taken the spotlight this week. The markets rallied on Monday amid hopes that the Federal Reserve will unleash more measures to accelerate the economy, but then slumped over the past three sessions as traders have grown concerned about growth prospects for the first quarter.
Manoj Ladwa, a senior trader at ETX Capital, said in an interview with FOX Business that much of the brighter data that had recently been seen has "already been priced in," meaning market participants are beginning to focus on the economy's trajectory going forward.
A final reading on U.S. gross domestic product showed the economy expanded at an annualized rate of 3% in the fourth quarter of 2011, matching previous readings and in line with estimates. However, a report released on Wednesday showing durable goods orders increased less than expected in February already has market participants worrying about the first quarter.
New claims for unemployment benefits fell to 359,000 last week from an upwardly revised 364,000 the week prior. Economists were expecting claims to rise to 350,000 from an initially reported 348,000.
"To be sure, the trend is decidedly positive but the jump up in this particular week is an unwelcome development," Dan Greenhaus, chief global strategist at BTIG wrote in a note to clients. Indeed, claims have remained under the key 400,000 level for weeks, which has helped support increases in the embattled jobs market.
Commodities markets have been particularly volatile recently as traders have struggled to balance worries about supply disruptions from Iran with data suggesting inventories are rising. Saudi Arabia, the world's biggest oil producer, also published an Op-Ed in the Financial Times suggesting it has the capacity to boost supplies if it becomes necessary.
Some analysts remained skeptical that the Kingdom will take sufficient action to materially reduce prices.
"The world needs proof of barrels, not words, and Saudi Arabia for now is delivering the latter rather than the former," Olivier Jakob, managing director at Swiss-based Petromatrix, wrote in a note to clients on Thursday.
Crude oil traded in New York fell $2.63, or 2.5%, to $102.78 a barrel on the heels of a steep loss in the last session. Still, prices are up more than 6% for the year.
Wholesale New York Harbor gasoline rose 0.15% to $3.401 a gallon.
In metals, gold shed $5.60, or 0.15%, to $1,655 a troy ounce. As equities have fallen across the globe, traders have taken shelter in U.S. Treasuries. The 10-year yield fell 0.017-percentage point to 2.185%.
European blue chips slid 1.8%, the English FTSE 100 slipped 1.2% to 5742 and the German DAX dipped 1.8% to 6875.
In Asia, the Japanese Nikkei 225 fell 0.69% to 10115 and the Chinese Hang Seng sold off by 1.3% to 20609.