Stocks end modestly lower after big plunge

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NEW YORK -- Stocks fell slightly but showed more signs of stability Wednesday as investors sifted through new economic data and found little reason to resume last week's heavy selling pace.

The stock indexes wavered in a narrow range, reacting little to comments from Chicago Fed President Michael Moskow that inflation remains stubborn and that interest rate increases might be needed to contain costs. The stock market was similarly unimpressed by data showing a weaker jobs picture and sluggishness in some areas of the country.

Investors in the past week have harbored concerns about a global economic slowdown and have been looking at data to try to determine whether the U.S. economy is still capable of pulling off a soft landing.

In late trading, after drifting higher for most of the afternoon, stocks turned lower again, unable to build on the rally made a day earlier. Tuesday's advance was strong -- the Dow Jones industrials made up about 26% of the losses they suffered in the previous week -- but it left investors wondering whether recent volatility that had been absent the markets in recent months would subside long enough to allow Wall Street to build some consensus about where stocks were headed.

Wednesday's trading, though, was reassuring. Volume levels were more typical of everyday trading than the big numbers Wall Street posted for much of the last week.

According to preliminary calculations, the Dow Jones industrial average fell 15.14, or 0.12%, to 12,192.45. The Dow traded within a 78-point range Wednesday, a much narrower band than in recent sessions.

Broader stock indicators also edged lower. The Standard & Poor's 500 index fell 3.44, or 0.25%, to 1,391.97, and the Nasdaq composite index declined 10.50, or 0.44%, to 2,374.64.

Bonds got a lift from the Federal Reserve survey, which said most parts of the country saw modest economic growth in the past month, but many areas saw slowing. The yield on the benchmark 10-year Treasury note fell to 4.50% from 4.53% late Tuesday.

The dollar was mixed against other currencies, while gold prices rose.

Light, sweet crude rose $1.13 to settle at $61.82 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange after weekly domestic inventory data showed a surprise draw on stocks. The energy market rally drove up stocks of oil companies; Chevron Corp. rose 66 cents to $68.33; Exxon Mobil Corp. rose 64 cents to $71.64; and ConocoPhillips climbed $1.34, or 2%, to $67.16.

Overseas markets, which have influenced U.S. trading over the past week, finished mixed and contributed to Wall Street's uncertainty.

Wall Street also found little inspiration from the Fed's survey, and shrugged off the ADP National Employment Report, which found private sector employment rose by 57,000 jobs in February, the weakest reading since July 2003. The findings arrived before Labor Department's employment report Friday, which investors will be closely watching to help gauge the health of the U.S. economy's lifeblood: its consumers.

Advancing issues and decliners were virtually equal on the New York Stock Exchange, where volume came to 1.71 billion shares, down from 1.83 billion Tuesday.

The Russell 2000 index of smaller companies fell 2.98, or 0.38%, to 775.90.

Overseas, Japan's Nikkei stock average closed down 0.47%, Hong Kong's Hang Seng index fell 0.73%, the Shanghai Composite Index, which helped trigger last week's selloff when it fell nearly 9% in single session, rose 1.99%. Britain's FTSE 100 closed up 0.29%, Germany's DAX index added 0.34%, and France's CAC-40 advanced 0.33%.


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