Stocks retreat after disappointing retail reports

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NEW YORK -- Wall Street retreated sharply Thursday, slicing nearly 150 points off the Dow Jones industrials after weak sales at many of the nation's major retailers heightened concerns about consumer spending.

The day's economic news, which also included a disquieting trade deficit figure, appeared to give investors the rationale they were looking for to cash in some of the market's recent gains. Analysts have been saying the surging stock market, which had pushed the Dow up more than 1,000 points since the beginning of March, was due for a pullback.

Companies including Wal-Mart Stores Inc., J.C. Penney Co. and Federated Department Stores Inc. said business fell in April, hurt by rising gasoline prices. Though many retail stocks had respectable gains Thursday, the reports raised worries that retail sales data from the Commerce Department Friday will also disappoint, and suggest that the economy is slower than previously thought.

The downturn in stocks followed a rise Wednesday that pushed the Dow to its 21st record close of the year, after the Federal Reserve left interest rates unchanged and reiterated that while the economy has slowed, inflation remains the central bank's primary concern. Thursday's sluggish retail sales and widening trade gap raised concerns that, while a rate cut may be necessary to boost the flagging economy, the central bank will be loathe to make one because of inflation.

"What the Federal Reserve said yesterday is that their principal focus is on inflation, and what retail sales said today is that their focus should be on the economy," said Hugh Johnson, chairman and chief investment officer of Johnson Illington Advisors. "Things are not good out there in economy land."

According to preliminary calculations, the Dow Jones industrial average fell 147.74, or 1.11%, to 13,215.13, giving back five sessions' worth of gains. It was the biggest point drop in the Dow since a 242-point plunge on March 13.

Broader stock indicators also declined. The Standard & Poor's 500 index lost 21.11, or 1.40%, to 1,491.47, and the Nasdaq composite index dipped 42.60, or 1.65%, to 2,533.74.

Bonds rose after the weak economic data, with the yield on the benchmark 10-year Treasury note falling to 4.65% from 4.67% late Wednesday.

After reporting declines in April sales at stores open more than a year, Federated fell $1.72, or 3.9%, to $42.10; Wal-Mart fell 18 cents to $47.75; and J.C. Penney fell $1.41 to $76.80. Not all the retail sales news was negative -- teen clothing retailer Aeropostale, for example, lifted its first-quarter outlook and its stock rose 6.9% -- but overall, the U.S. retail scene looked gloomier than anticipated.

An additional disappointment was the U.S. trade deficit, which soared more than 10% to $63.9 billion in March, its highest level in six months. The gap, wider than economists' forecast of $60 billion, was driven up by high crude oil imports.

"Rising import prices are, all things equal, inflationary," said Alexander Paris, economist and market analyst for Chicago-based Barrington Research.

A Labor Department report that the number of laid-off workers seeking unemployment benefits fell last week failed to cheer investors, who had been expecting the decline.

Friday will be another data-focused day that could help decide whether Wall Street resumes its advance or embarks on a larger correction. The Labor Department will release its Producer Price Index, a gauge of inflation at the wholesale level that is expected to be boosted by high energy costs.

Crude oil prices rebounded Thursday from a decline a day earlier, rising 26 cents to $61.81 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange.

Some weak earnings reports added to the negative mood on Wall Street.

Whole Foods Market Inc. said slowing sales growth and rising costs hurt first-quarter profits. The natural and organic foods retailer's results missed Wall Street's expectations. Whole Foods dropped $4.65, or 10%, to $41.15.

Interpublic Group of Cos. said its first-quarter loss narrowed, but analysts had forecasted better results. The advertising and marketing agency dropped 93 cents, or 7.2%, to $12.01.

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

Declining issues outnumbered advancers by more than 3 to 1 on the New York Stock Exchange, where volume came to 1.54 billion shares, down from 1.56 billion Wednesday.

The Russell 2000 index of smaller companies fell 16.14, or 1.93%, to 818.63, retreating from Wednesday's record close.

Overseas, Japan's Nikkei stock average fell 0.06%. Britain's FTSE 100 fell 0.39%, Germany's DAX index lost 0.81%, and France's CAC-40 declined 0.64%.
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