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Inflation fears hurt stocks

The Associated Press

Wall Street fell Monday in an erratic session dominated by worries about inflation -- which were somewhat soothed by a plunge in oil prices that took crude to its lowest level in three months.

Light, sweet crude closed down $3.69, or 2.9%, to $121.41 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange after Tropical Storm Edouard seemed unlikely to threaten oil and natural gas facilities in the Gulf of Mexico.

Oil’s retreat was welcome news to a stock market that initially sold off after the Commerce Department said an inflation gauge tied to consumer spending had surged 0.8% in June, reflecting higher gasoline prices. That was the biggest jump in the indicator since it gained 1% in February 1981.

The data came in the department’s report on consumer spending, which fell 0.2% in June after removing the effects of higher prices. The report fed investors’ growing concerns about the effects of rising prices on consumers, whose spending is the lifeblood of the economy.

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Richard E. Cripps, chief market strategist for Stifel Nicolaus, said Monday’s economic readings reinforced the negative sentiment in the markets globally. Although the Federal Reserve will hold a regularly scheduled policy meeting today, he said investors didn’t expect much from the session to help an economy stymied by higher prices and the continuing housing slump.

“I don’t think that the Fed can really pull any of its levers to create a short-term fix,” Cripps said. “To go higher, I think we need the sentiment to change with lower energy prices. Crude oil dropping below the $117 area certainly would provide a very visible benefit in terms of the economy but it also makes the problems seem a little bit less severe.”

The Dow Jones industrial average fell 42.17 points, or 0.4%, to 11,284.15 as energy and materials stocks declined amid a broad drop in commodities. The Dow had been down more than 100 points in early trading.

Broader stock indicators showed steeper declines. The Standard & Poor’s 500 index fell 11.30 points, or 0.9%, to 1,249.01, and the Nasdaq composite index declined 25.40 points, or 1.1%, to 2,285.56.

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Many investors appeared to trade cautiously ahead of the Fed’s meeting. The central bank is expected to keep its benchmark interest rate steady at 2%, given recent lackluster readings on the economy. Inflation rose sharply for businesses in June as they paid higher prices for commodities, but it appears to have eased in July because the price of oil retreated in the second half of the month. That might take pressure off the Fed to raise rates as a means of containing inflation.

The market will be keenly interested in the Fed’s statement assessing the economy, which will accompany its rate decision. The central bank routinely uses the statement to at least hint at its leanings in regard to future rate moves.

The yield on the benchmark 10-year Treasury note, which moves opposite its price, rose to 3.96% from 3.93% on Friday. The dollar rose against other major currencies, while gold prices fell.


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