Sun, May 18, 2003 - Page 10 News List

Wall Street plays it safe amid downbeat reports

REBOUNDING ECONOMY The Dow gained for its third straight week, while the NASDAQ and the S&P each finished higher for the third week running

AP , NEW YORK

The NASDAQ composite posted a fifth straight week of gains -- its longest streak since December 2001 -- on a day of modest declines Friday, when investors played it safe and cashed in their profits.

Analysts said a pair of downbeat government reports stirred some concerns of a tepid economic recovery, while a disappointing outlook from Dell weighed on tech shares. Still, investor optimism remained high, helping to limit Friday's losses.

"We've had a great run since the end of the war, and I'm astounded how the market has held these gains," said Steve Kolano, an equity trader at The Boston Co Asset Management.

"Investors are ready to turn the corner," he added. "But I am getting a little concerned that this rally is a bit overdone. We haven't seen hard evidence yet the economy is ready to turn."

The NASDAQ closed down 12.85, or 0.8 percent, to 1,538.53. The S&P declined 2.37, or 0.3 percent, to 944.30.

Blue chips also finished lower. The Dow fell 34.17, or 0.4 percent, at 8,678.97, having gained 65 points the previous session.

For the week, all three main gauges finished higher, with the Dow up 0.9 percent, the NASDAQ higher 1.2 percent and the S&P 500 up 1.2 percent. It was the fifth winning week for the S&P 500, its best performance since August 2002. The Dow posted a third week of gains, a feat not seen since November 2002.

On Friday, Dell fell US$0.99 to US$31.19 after the computer maker reported quarterly profits that met analysts' expectations; however, it also said it does not expect a major turnaround in the tech market, and a Smith Barney analyst downgraded the company's stock, citing overvaluation.

"Dell's numbers didn't blow anything out of the water," said Russ Koesterich, US equity strategist at State Street Corp. "The growth isn't really coming from significant revenue growth, but from cost-cutting. For the market to go really higher, we need to see that companies like Dell can grow the top line."

Two economic reports also prompted some selling.

The US Department of Labor reported consumer prices fell by 0.3 percent in April, the biggest decline in 18 months and deeper than the 0.1 percent dip analysts were predicting. The reading suggests inflation isn't a concern, although deflation might be.

And the US Department of Commerce said the number of new housing projects builders started last month dropped by 6.8 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 1.63 million, indicating the once-hot sector is losing momentum.

Stocks have enjoyed strong gains in recent weeks after upbeat first-quarter earnings and the end of the war with Iraq bolstered hopes of a rebounding economy. Still, while investors are largely optimistic, analysts say the market remains vulnerable to bursts of profit-taking.

"The big question you have to ask is what is the next catalyst," Koesterich said. "It's the end of the earnings season and most of the economic numbers are done for the rest of the month."

"Short of technical reasons, there aren't a lot of catalysts," he added. "We're likely to churn at these levels and try to digest these gains."

General Motors lost US$0.47 cents to US$34.41 after Prudential Financial cut the automaker's stock rating to "sell" from "hold," citing the company's declining market share.

Gainers included AT&T, which rose US$0.68 to US$18.12.

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