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Published: Tuesday, 7/31/2012

Investors hold back ahead of key meetings this week by Federal Reserve, European Central Bank

ASSOCIATED PRESS

NEW YORK — Stocks were wavering today as investors held back ahead of three critical events this week: policy meetings at both the Federal Reserve and the European Central Bank and a closely watched report on the U.S. labor market.

Major stock indexes shifted between small gains and losses in thin trading. The Dow Jones industrial average was down 22 points at 13,047 as of noon. The Standard & Poor’s 500 index edged down three points to 1,382, and Nasdaq composite index slipped less than a point to 2,945.

The Federal Reserve, which started its two-day policy meeting today, appears to be moving toward announcing some kind of new step to energize the U.S. economy. But there were big questions over whether it will do so this week.

That’s because some economists believe the Fed isn’t convinced that the U.S. economic slowdown is pronounced enough yet to require more economic stimulus. A slew of recent data that has shown weakness in the economy has been offset by some pockets of strength.

Today was no exception.

The Commerce Department reported that spending by the U.S. consumer was unchanged in June. But personal income edged up 0.5 percent.

“If incomes are rising, but people aren’t spending, it tells you that the consumer has some ammunition for more spending during the crucial back-to-school season,” said Quincy Krosby, market strategist with Prudential Financial.

There were other positive numbers. The Standard & Poor’s/Case-Shiller home price index released today showed that prices increases in all of the 20 cities it tracks. The Conference Board said Consumer Confidence Index increased to its highest reading since April, and better than economists had forecast.

The European Central Bank will meet on Thursday to discuss a plan to help countries with crippling debt.

ECB President Mario Draghi said last Thursday that central bank would do “whatever it takes” to preserve the euro, sending markets sharply higher. Over the following days, the leaders of Germany, France and Italy also said they would do all they can to protect the 17-country currency union. The comments raised expectations that the ECB might step in to buy Spanish and perhaps Italian government bonds to lower the borrowing costs for those countries, which have shot up to unsustainably high levels.

Markets are also waiting for the monthly unemployment report on Friday, the most-watched gauge of how healthy the U.S. economy is. “There’s a lot to absorb this week, including two major announcements from two very important central banks and payroll data,” Krosby said.

Corporate earnings news did little to inspire investors. Aetna, the health insurance company, reported a 15 percent slump in net income as rising medical costs outweighed a gain in revenue. Archer Daniels Midland, hammered by record corn prices, reported a 25 percent drop in net income.

Among other stocks making big moves:

— Coach, the luxury handbag maker, fell $10, or 17 percent, to $50.51, the biggest loss in the S&P 500 index. The company’s revenue came in below analysts’ forecasts because of slower sales at North American factory stores as consumers got more cautious about their spending.

— U.S. Steel rose $2, or 11 percent, to $20.99. Higher prices and lower costs for raw materials and energy helped the company beat Wall Street expectations despite challenging economic conditions, particularly in Europe.

— Goodyear Tire rose 87 cents, or 8 percent, to $11.24. The tire company’s income more than doubled in the quarter after lower costs offset a drop in tire sales and beat Wall Street expectations

— Valero Energy rose $1.64, or 6 percent, to $27.72. The second quarter results from the gasoline and petroleum products maker beat Wall Street expectations after it added a plant in the U.K., which helped the company increase production.



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