Stocks Open Lower as Jitters about Retail Return

The Wall St. street sign is photographed in front of the American flag hanging on the New York Stock Exchange prior to a NYC Central Labor Council rally for worker protections, Thursday, Sept. 25, 2008 in New York. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)
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NEW YORKWall Street's worries about weak consumer spending revived Thursday, sending stocks lower as bad news from Wal-Mart Stores Inc. signaled that even the stronger U.S. retailers struggled during the holiday shopping season. The Dow Jones industrials fell by 100 points.

The nation's largest retailer said December sales at stores open for at least a year rose by 1.2 percent, including fuel, which was worse than analysts expected. Wal-Mart also slashed its forecast for fourth-quarter earnings, and its shares fell more than 8 percent in the early going.

"This news out of Wal-Mart has taken a lot of people by surprise," said Craig Peckham, market strategist at Jefferies & Co. The discount retailer was viewed as having a good business model in a tough economy, he said.

Other retailers brought more disappointment. Macy's managed to post better-than-expected December sales, but the department store operator lowered its fourth-quarter outlook and said it was closing 11 stores.

The poor numbers from most retailers weren't a surprise after industry analysts had warned following Christmas that the season had turned out badly. But Wall Street became unnerved when a company like Wal-Mart cut its forecast. Normally, discounters are expected to fare better in tough economies because they can attract customers whose chief concern is low prices. So trouble at discount stores underscores the overall difficulties facing consumers.

The cutback in consumer spending has been a result of the deteriorating job market. On Thursday, the Labor Department said the number of new claims for jobless benefits unexpectedly dipped last week, but the number of people continuing to file claims rose to a new 26-year high. And economists believe the government will report on Friday another massive jobs loss for December.

"The market has been bracing itself for a pretty grim number tomorrow," Peckham said.

As the economy worsens, most on Wall Street are hoping that a stimulus package proposed by President-elect Barack Obama will win congressional approval. Obama said Thursday the nation's recession could "linger for years" unless Congress acts, according to the text of a speech to be delivered at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.

In midmorning trading, the Dow fell 99.16, or 1.13 percent, to 8,670.54.

Broader stock indicators also declined. The Standard & Poor's 500 index fell 8.11, or 0.89 percent, to 898.54, and the Nasdaq composite index fell 12.87, or 0.80 percent, to 1,586.19.

The Russell 2000 index of smaller companies 3.62, or 0.73 percent, to 493.48.

Declining issues outnumbered advancers by about 2 to 1 on the New York Stock Exchange, where volume came to 117.8 million shares.

On Wednesday, the Dow fell 245 points on worries about unemployment and a warning from technology giant Intel Corp. about poor business conditions. Warnings from aluminum producer Alcoa Inc. and media company Time Warner Inc. added to investors' worries.

In tech sector news Thursday, computer maker Dell Inc. said it would slash 1,900 jobs in Ireland, while Lenovo Group, another computer maker, warned it expects a loss for its latest quarter and will lay off 2,500, or 11 percent, of its work force worldwide.

Government bond prices rose modestly. The yield on the benchmark 10-year Treasury note, which moves opposite its price, fell to 2.46 percent from 2.50 percent late Wednesday. The yield on the three-month T-bill, considered one of the safest short-term investments, slipped to 0.10 percent from 0.11 percent.

The dollar fell against other major currencies, and gold prices rose.

Light, sweet crude fell 41 cents to $42.22 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange.

Among retailers, Wal-Mart fell $4.85, or 8.7 percent, to $50.69, while Macy's fell 12 cents, or 0.85 percent, to $10.95.

Britain's FTSE 100 fell 1.74 percent in afternoon trading, as the Bank of England cut its official interest rate by half a percentage point to 1.5 percent — the lowest level in its 315-year history. The Fed last month slashed rates to a record-low range of zero to 0.25 percent.

In other European trading, Germany's DAX index fell 1.45 percent, and France's CAC-40 fell 1.55 percent. In Asian trading, Japan's Nikkei stock average fell 3.93 percent, and Hong Kong's Hang Seng index fell 3.81 percent.