Weak U.S. retail sales data helped set the stage Wednesday for a listless day of trading on Wall Street.
Coming off a two-day losing streak, the major stock indexes spent much of the day drifting between small gains and losses before ending mostly lower.
Technology stocks were among the biggest gainers, sending the tech-heavy Nasdaq composite slightly higher. The Dow Jones industrial average and Standard & Poor's 500 index notched their third straight loss. The price of U.S. oil fell.
In addition to corporate deals and earnings news, traders had their eye on the Commerce Department's latest monthly snapshot of retail sales. The report, a bellwether for consumer spending, showed retail sales were essentially flat in April, falling short of Wall Street's forecasts. All told, retail sales have risen just 0.9% over the past 12 months.
“The retail sales numbers were really crucial in terms of assessing whether or not the rebound from the first quarter was gaining momentum,” said Quincy Krosby, market strategist for Prudential Financial. “It leaves a lingering concern as to whether or not there's something more at work keeping the economy from rebounding.”
The Dow Jones industrial average fell 7.74 points, or 0.04%, to 18,060.49. The Standard & Poor's 500 index shed 0.64 points, or 0.03%, to 2,098.48. The Nasdaq composite added 5.50 points, or 0.1%, to 4,981.69.
The indexes are up for the month and year.
The markets barely budged from the get-go on Wednesday, absent the global bond market sell-off that rattled investors a day earlier. After a brief dip, bond prices rose, sending the yield on the 10-year Treasury note up to 2.28% from 2.25% late Tuesday.
Traders got a look at the disappointing retail sales report early on.
Even so, the major stock indexes made only minor moves and spent much of the afternoon higher before arriving at an uneven finish.
Why wasn't there a bigger drop in the market? Because some investors anticipate the weaker sales data could give the Federal Reserve one more reason to put off lowering its key interest rate until at least September, said Phil Orlando, chief equity strategist at Federated Investors.
“The Fed is looking at this data too, and if you thought they would be considering a rate hike in June, I don't see how you do that on the basis of this data point,” Orlando said. Low interest rates favor stocks.
Investors also got some insight into retail spending from one of the biggest department store operators, Macy's.
The retailer said its profit slumped 13% in the first quarter as it faced delayed merchandise shipments from the West Coast port slowdown, severe winter weather and lower spending by international tourists. Macy's results fell short of Wall Street's expectations. The stock lost $1.60, or 2.4%, to $63.73.
Traders also took a dim view of Artic Cat's latest financial results, which included revenue that fell short of financial analysts' forecasts. Arctic Cat slid $2.56, or 7.3%, to $32.51.
EZchip Semiconductor tumbled 24.2% after the network processor delivered a disappointing customer update. The stock fell $4.73 to $14.84.
Investors bid up stocks in a couple of companies that announced acquisitions.
Owens-Illinois, which makes beer and wine bottles, jumped 9.2% after saying it would buy a glass container business from the Mexican company Vitro. The stock gained $2.19 to $26.98.
Shares in Williams Companies rose 6.2% on news that the gas infrastructure company is buying Williams Partners in a $13.8 billion stock deal. The stock added $3.11 to $53.21.
Six of the 10 sectors in the S&P 500 moved lower. Utilities stocks declined the most. The sector is down 8.8% this year. Technology stocks notched the biggest gain. That sector is now up 3.1% this year.
The price of U.S. oil fell 25 cents to $60.50 a barrel in New York. Brent crude, a benchmark for international oils used by many U.S. refineries, fell 5 cents to $66.81 a barrel in London. In other futures trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange, wholesale gasoline rose less than a penny to $2.041 a gallon, while heating oil rose half a penny to $2.005 a gallon. Natural gas gained 3.8 cents to $2.935 per 1,000 cubic feet.