Stocks Slip as Economic Data Come Into Focus

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The markets fell slightly as the focus on Wall Street shifted from Europe's debt crisis to the global economy.

Today's Markets

As of 3:10 p.m. ET, the Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 21.3 points, or 0.16%, to 12945, the S&P 500 dipped 3.8 points, or 0.27%, to 1358 and the Nasdaq Composite slipped 13 points, or 0.44%, to 2935.

Existing home sales rose 4.3% in January to an annual rate of 4.57 million units, the highest rate since May 2010. Economists had been expecting a 1.9% increase to an annual rate of 4.65 million units. The bigger-than-expected increase was partially a result of a significant downward revision in December to 4.38 million units from 4.61 million.

One possible bright spot is inventory falling to its lowest level since 2005, which economists said could help stabilize prices. The real estate market has continued to struggle as prices and demand have remained subdued. Economists have pointed to this a major sticking point for the broader economy.

China's manufacturing sector likely contracted for the fourth-straight month in February, according to the HSBC Purchasing Managers’ Index. That means that the world's second-biggest economy "remains on track for a slowdown," Hongbin Qu, the company's co-head of Asian economic research wrote in a note accompanying the report.

A fresh read on manufacturing in the eurozone proved to be equally disappointing. Markit's purchasing manager's index for the 17-member currency bloc fell to 49.7 in February from 50.4 in January. Meanwhile, Germany, the region's economic engine, saw its PMI fall to 50.1 from 51. Readings above 50 point to expansion, while those below indicate contraction.

The data "confirmed our view that the euro area is likely to see another contraction" in the first quarter, analysts at Nomura wrote in a note to clients following the report. "The headwinds from fiscal tightening and the sovereign debt crisis will continue to weigh on the near-term outlook."

The debt situation in Greece that appeared to be under control after European Union leaders approved a second bailout package for the country began unraveling to some extent on Wednesday. Fitch slashed the country's credit rating to "C" from "CCC," warning a default is "highly likely" in the near term.

The ratings company said that an exchange by private creditors of Greek bonds for new paper with a lower face value, a key component of the rescue package, "will, if completed, constitute a rating default." The other major ratings companies haven't weighed in yet on whether the exchange is tantamount to a default, meaning it remains unclear if insurance policies protecting against a default will be triggered. This has been cited by analysts as a major risk to European banks that write these policies.

Commodities markets were mixed in choppy trading.

Gold rose $12.80, or 0.73%, to $1,771 a troy ounce. The precious metal now stands at its highest level since November 16 last year.

Elsewhere, the benchmark crude oil contract traded in New York ticked higher by 3 cents, or 0.03%, to $106.28 a barrel.

Wholesale RBOB gasoline climbed 0.57% to $3.088 a gallon.

Treasury yields fell slightly as traders bid up the asset. The benchmark 10-year note yields 2.007% from 2.066%.

Foreign Markets

European blue chips fell 0.89%, the English FTSE 100 slipped 0.2% to 5916 and the German DAX dipped 0.93% to 6844.

In Asia, the Japanese Nikkei 225 rallied 0.96% to 9554 and the Chinese Hang Seng rose 0.33% to 21549.