Friday, March 31, 2006

Stocks Slip, But Finish Strong for the Quarter

News Article
March 31, 2006

Business Week Online

Stocks Slip, But Finish Strong for the Quarter

The S&P 500 marked its best first quarter since 1999, as investors sifted through a flurry of economic reports

The major equity indexes finished modestly lower Friday, but up for the quarter, as investors digested a fresh batch of economic data. End-of-quarter portfolio impacted trading, and volume fell despite a rush of activity in the closing five minutes, says Standard & Poor's MarketScope.

The Dow Jones industrial average fell 41.3 points, or 0.37%, to 11,109.4, despite gains by Honeywell (HON ) and Hewlett-Packard (HPQ ). The Dow gained 3.7% for the first quarter, its best since 2002. The broader Standard & Poor's 500 index slipped 5.43 points, or 0.42%, to 1,294.82, a 3.1% quarterly gain in its best first quarter since 1999. The tech-heavy Nasdaq composite edged lower 1.03 points, or 0.04%, to 2,339.79, ending up 6.1% in its best first quarter since 2000.

Economic data remained a focal point Friday. Factory orders increased 0.2% in February, less than expected. The Chicago Purchasing Managers' index of manufacturing activity rose sharply to 60.4 for March, from February's 54.9 reading. The University of Michigan's final reading on March consumer sentiment was revised unexpectedly higher to 88.9, from the preliminary reading of 86.7.

Earlier, personal income rose 0.3% in February, slightly less than expected, says Action Economics. The price index for consumer spending was flat after a 0.5% gain in January.

Investors will have another busy day of economic data Monday. The Institute of Supply Management's index for March is expected at 57.5, after February's reading of 56.7, says Action Economics. February construction spending is seen rising 0.4%. March vehicle sales are forecast to rise 0.5% to 16.7 million units. The February pending home sales index will also likely draw attention.

In corporate news, activity continued at General Motors (GM). Shares finished higher, after an early decline, on news former unit Delphi announced a restructuring plan. Meanwhile, the automaker reportedly may agree Monday to sell control of its finance unit to investors led by Cerberus Capital Management.

Among other blue-chips, Citigroup (C ) was little changed after falling on news the financial giant was being sued for insider trading in an Australian merger case.

M&A action kept up its recent busy pace. Colgate Palmolive (CL ) reportedly may offer to buy the entire consumer products unit of Pfizer (PFE ). Elsewhere, J.P. Morgan Chase (JPM ) reportedly plans to purchase the entire retail banking unit of Bank of New York (BK ).

Tech bellwether Google (GOOG ) was modestly lower after revealing plans to expand its online advertising into local markets. The Internet search company joins the S&P 500 after the market close.

In the energy markets Friday, May West Texas Intermediate crude oil futures closed down 55 cents at $66.60 a barrel. Profit-taking was behind the decline, says Action Economics.

European markets finished lower. In London, the Financial Times-Stock Exchange 100 index fell 50.6 points, or 0.84%, to 5,964.6. Germany's DAX index slipped 14.11 points, or 0.24%, to 5,970.08. In Paris, the CAC 40 index dropped 19.25 points, or 0.37%, to 5,220.85.

Asian markets finished mixed. Japan's Nikkei 225 index edged higher 14.32 points, or 0.08%, to 17,059.66. In Hong Kong, the Hang Seng index fell 75.65 points, or 0.48%, to 15,805.04. Korea's Kospi index rallied 21.46 points, or 1.6%, to 1,359.6.

Treasury Market

Prices for 10-year Treasury notes closed higher at 97-09/32 with a yield of 4.85%, while 30-year bonds were little changed at 93-28/32 for a yield of 4.89%.

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