Stocks fall for third straight day, led down by health companies

Trader John Panin works on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.
Trader John Panin works on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.
(Richard Drew / Associated Press)

Healthcare companies led U.S. stocks broadly lower Wednesday, giving the market its third straight loss.

Technology and energy stocks also bore the brunt of the selling, offsetting gains by materials and utilities companies. Several retailers rose. Smaller companies fell more than the rest of the market.

The latest market slide came as investors weighed a new survey indicating a lower-than-expected gain in hiring by private U.S. companies last month and data showing the nation’s trade deficit widened to a decade-long high in December. The discouraging reports come ahead of a key government report on jobs Friday.

“The market is going through a natural digestion process,” said Sam Stovall, chief investment strategist at CFRA. “Some people could be worrying that maybe we are getting closer to an economic slowdown than we thought.”

The Standard & Poor’s 500 fell 18.20 points, or 0.7%, to 2,771.45. The benchmark index is now on track for its first weekly decline since January.


The Dow Jones industrial average fell 133.17 points, or 0.5%, to 25,673.46. The Nasdaq composite declined 70.44 points, or 0.9%, to 7,505.92. The Russell 2000 index of smaller-company stocks slid 31.46 points, or 2%, to 1,536.82.

Disappointing economic reports, uncertainty over trade and fears of a slowdown in economic growth have been weighing on the market the last couple of weeks.

New economic data out Wednesday did little to encourage investors. Payroll processor ADP said U.S. businesses grew by 183,000 jobs in February — a solid gain but fewer than the 188,000 that analysts expected. Meanwhile, the Commerce Department said the U.S. trade deficit jumped 19% in December, widening the figure to a decade-long high of $621 billion.

The market got clarity on some uncertainties over the last month, including the Federal Reserve’s strategy and prospects for a U.S.-China trade deal. But investors now face other concerns, including a potential global slowdown and increased government debt, said Tracie McMillion, head of global asset allocation at Wells Fargo Investment Institute.

“We’re just waiting for some news that will give us some direction,” McMillion said.

Healthcare stocks led Wednesday’s market slide. Nektar Therapeutics slumped 5.2%.

General Electric slid 7.9% after its chief executive said the conglomerate will be left with no extra funds in 2019. GE has shrunk considerably since becoming entangled in the financial crisis a decade ago and has sought to divest even more of its businesses.

Exxon Mobil fell 1.1% after saying it would increase spending. That was part of a broader sell-off in energy stocks. Hess slid 4.1%. Halliburton declined 4.8%.

Retailers put traders in a buying mood for the second day in a row.

Abercrombie & Fitch soared 20.4% on a solid fourth quarter and forecast. The retailer beat an important industry sales measure on gains at its Hollister brand. Abercrombie’s results came a day after Target and Kohl’s reported solid quarterly earnings and forecasts. The batch of strong results has been a surprise for investors, considering that overall retail sales fell broadly in December.

Tailored Brands, which owns Men’s Wearhouse, and Capri Holdings — whose brands include Michael Kors, Jimmy Choo and Versace — each rose 1.8%.

Dollar Tree climbed 5.1% after the discount retail chain said it is closing as many as 390 Family Dollar stores this year and rebranding about 200 others under the Dollar Tree name. The company also slashed the value of its struggling Family Dollar chain, booking a $2.73-billion charge in its fiscal fourth quarter.

Dollar Tree acquired Family Dollar in 2015 for almost $9 billion. The move was expected to bolster its business and better battle chains such as Walmart and rival Dollar General, but Family Dollar has struggled and pulled down the parent company’s earnings.

AeroVironment jumped 9.4% after the unmanned-aircraft company reported a fourth-quarter surge in revenue that helped its profit beat forecasts.

U.S. crude fell 0.6% to $56.22 a barrel in New York. Brent crude, used to price international oils, rose 0.2% to $65.99 a barrel in London.

Bond prices rose. The yield on the 10-year Treasury note fell to 2.69% from 2.72%.

The dollar fell to 111.81 yen from 111.89 yen. The euro strengthened to $1.1308 from $1.1303.

Gold rose 0.2% to $1,287.60 an ounce. Silver slipped 0.1% to $15.09 an ounce. Copper fell 0.5% to $2.92 a pound.

Wholesale gasoline climbed 1.2% to $1.79 a gallon. Heating oil was little changed at $2.02 a gallon. Natural gas slid 1.5% to $2.84 per 1,000 cubic feet.