Stocks edge lower as investors dump utility shares

Stocks dipped as energy shares took a hit

A slide in shares of utility companies nudged the U.S. stock market lower Thursday.

Utilities were the day's biggest losers, falling 1%, and their losses resumed a trend that emerged in late January. Investors have dumped the dividend-rich stocks as the yield of the U.S. 10-year note creeps higher.

Energy stocks also weighed on the market Thursday.

Overall, though, U.S. stocks have rebounded from a January slump. The Standard & Poor's 500 index has reached all-time highs in February, and is on track for its best monthly performance in more than three years. Company earnings are still growing and the economy is continuing to recover.

"The U.S. markets are still in a `goldilocks' scenario," neither too hot, or too cold, said Jeremy Zirin, chief U.S. equity strategist for UBS Wealth Management Research. "Growth is solid, but not spectacular, and most importantly, not stoking high levels of inflation."

The Standard & Poor's 500 index ended the day down 2.23 points, or 0.11%, at 2,097.45. The index is still within a fraction of the all-time high of 2,100.34 reached on Tuesday.

The index has gained 5.1% in February. If it holds those gains through the end of the month, it would be the strongest performance since October 2011.

The Dow Jones industrial average dropped 44.08 points, or 0.2%, to 17,985.77.

The price of oil fell, though it regained some of its losses when the Energy Department reported that the growth in supplies was less than expected. Benchmark U.S. crude fell 98 cents to close at $51.16 a barrel in New York. Brent crude, a benchmark for international oils used by many U.S. refineries, fell 32 cents to close at $60.21 in London.

Technology stocks were among the day's gainers. The sector has outperformed the broader market since the start of the year and the tech-heavy Nasdaq composite has gained 6.2% this month.

On Thursday, the index rose 18.34 points, or 0.4%, to 4,924.70. It was the seventh straight gain for the index, its longest streak of gains since last February.

Investors are favoring technology stocks because they offer better growth prospects than the overall market, said Zirin of UBS.

Consumer-oriented tech companies such as Apple should benefit as lower gas prices leave more money in consumers' pockets, he said. Businesses are also likely to increase investments in technology.

Priceline was the biggest gainer in the S&P 500. The stock jumped $95.06, or 8.5%, to $1,218 as an increase in bookings helped the online travel company beat analysts' expectations.

In Europe, Greece's government asked to extend its rescue loan agreement by six months in order to give it and the eurozone more time to hash out a longer, permanent deal. However, Greece held back on offering to extend a series of budget cuts and reforms that the eurozone has required since 2010 in exchange for loans. Greece says that the measures have devastated its economy. The 19 finance ministers of the eurozone will meet Friday to discuss the proposals.

The main stock market in Athens rose 1.1%. Germany's DAX climbed 0.2%. The CAC-40 in France was 0.6% higher.

In U.S. government bond trading, prices fell. The yield on the 10-year government climbed to 2.10% from 2.08% on Wednesday. The yield started the month at 1.64%.

The U.S. dollar was little changed against the Japanese yen, trading at 118.97 yen on Thursday. The dollar edged up against the euro, pushing the currency down to $1.1383 from $1.1399.

In metals trading, gold rose $7.40, or 0.6%, to $1,207.10. Silver gained 11.6 cents, or 0.7%, to $16.38 and copper rose 0.5 cents, or 0.2%, to $2.62 a pound.

In other futures trading on the NYMEX:

— Wholesale gasoline rose 4.2 cents to close at $1.616 a gallon.

— Heating oil rose 3.5 cents to close at $1.994 a gallon.

— Natural gas fell 0.3 cent to close at $2.834 per 1,000 cubic feet.

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