Markets close out worst week since January

Markets close out worst week since January
Trader Neil Catania works on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange as the U.S. stock market eked out modest gains but ultimately closed out its worst week since January. (Richard Drew, Associated Press)

The stock market closed out its worst week since January, weighed down early by doubts about China's economic growth, uninspiring economic data in the U.S. and finally geopolitical tension in Russia.

The Dow Jones industrial average slid 2.4% for the week, saddling it with a 3.1% loss so far this year. The index was off 43.22 points Friday, at 16,065.67, after skidding 231.19 points Thursday.


The Standard & Poor's 500 index fell 2% for the week, leaving it down 0.4% for the year.

Traders late in the week fretted over the political uncertainty ahead of a Sunday vote in which the Crimea region will determine whether to secede from Ukraine.

The United States and Europe dispute the legitimacy of the referendum and have threatened sanctions against Russia if it moves to annex Crimea.

Any disruption in trade could dent already fragile Western European economies, many of which are substantial trading partners with Russia and heavy buyers of its oil and natural gas.

The Stoxx Europe 600, an index covering a range of stocks across the continent, slid 0.7% Friday and is down 4.7% in the last two weeks.

In Germany, which is dependent on Russian natural gas, the key DAX index was off 6.6% over the last two weeks. France's CAC-40 index fell 4.3%, and Britain's FTSE 100 dropped 4.1%.

Beyond that, investors have been unnerved by reports pointing to economic softening in China and unimpressive growth in the U.S. China's economy tailed off notably in the first two months of 2014, including disappointing results in retail, housing and manufacturing.

Consumer confidence in the U.S. unexpectedly fell to a four-month low Friday, a sign that consumer spending may be slow to snap back from the weather-induced pullback in retail sales earlier this year. The decline in U.S. share prices snuffed out a five-week rally that had followed a weak January.

The year's lackluster start wasn't surprising given the explosive surge in stock prices last year that carried the S&P 500 up nearly 30%.

Even bullish analysts who expect the market to do well this year said share prices could meander in the near term.

Investors are unlikely to move forcefully into stocks, experts said, until they know the outcome of the Ukrainian crisis, the effect of the severe weather on first-quarter corporate earnings and the likely outcome of the mid-term congressional election.

Many investors have held off buying stocks in the hope that a correction driven by any of those factors could create bargains, said Marc Pado, a market analyst at consulting firm DowBull.

"That's what everybody's frustrated with," Pado said. "They all want that big reaction — that 20% bear market decline — so they can buy it."

Jim Paulsen, investment strategist at Wells Capital Management, said he expects the economic recovery will pick up speed this year and extend the five-year bull market into 2014 or beyond.

Still, he is downbeat about stocks in 2014, saying the directionless start in the first three months suggests this could be a transition year as the market digests last year's rally.

The fate of the market will depend in part on whether the economy can consistently grow at 3% or better, a modest goal coming out of past recessions but one that has been elusive in the slow recovery of recent years.