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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted at 12:38 p.m., Thursday, February 23, 2006

Inflation worries, Viacom earns push stocks lower

Associated Press

NEW YORK — Wall Street slid lower today, with inflation concerns and a disappointing earnings report from Viacom Inc. prompting investors to collect profits. A drop in oil prices failed to mitigate the losses.

Investors grew jittery as the latest unemployment figures showed strength in the labor market. First-time jobless claims fell by 20,000 from the previous week to 278,000 — a far sharper drop than economists had expected.

While a strong labor market is generally good news, Wall Street remains concerned that the additional buying power that comes with steady employment could push prices higher and spark inflation, prompting the Federal Reserve to keep hiking interest rates.

Still, investors were pleased with a drop in oil prices, which fell below $60 per barrel at one point after the Energy Department reported a rise in crude oil stockpiles. A barrel of light crude settled at $60.54, down 47 cents, on the New York Mercantile Exchange.

"Certainly the move in oil is good, and the market certainly perked up somewhat after that inventory report," said Peter Cardillo, chief strategist and senior vice president at S.W. Bach & Co. "For the intermediate term, there doesn't seem to be a supply/demand problem out there. But you don't know when that'll change."

The Dow Jones industrial average fell 67.95, or 0.61 percent, to 11,069.22.

Broader stock indicators also fell. The Standard & Poor's 500 index lost 4.88, or 0.38 percent, to 1,287.79, and the Nasdaq composite index dropped 3.85, or 0.17 percent, to 2,279.32.

Bonds fell, with the yield on the 10-year Treasury note climbing to 4.56 percent from 4.53 percent late yesterday. The dollar was mixed against other major currencies, while gold prices rose.

Stocks jumped to fresh 4-year highs over the past few weeks as strength in the economy encouraged investors. Yet concerns remain, including whether the Federal Reserve's interest rate hikes will cut off economic growth. With little news today to keep momentum alive and uncertainty about the state of the economy later in the year, profit-taking ate into the rally.

"It's very difficult for investors to extrapolate anything from these short-term moves in the market," said Christopher Conkey, chief investment officer at Evergreen Investments. "Don't get too excited about days like yesterday, and don't get too excited about days like today, either."

In its first earnings report since spinning off CBS Corp., Viacom Inc. said its fourth-quarter profits fell due to poor performance at its Paramount movie studio arm as well as one-time charges related to the company's reorganization. Viacom fell 96 cents to $41.

Home builder Toll Brothers Inc. rose $1.05 to $33.54 after the company said fourth-quarter profits jumped 49 percent and that its backlog of building projects rose 22 percent by the end of the quarter. However, the number of new contracts fell 21 percent, raising new concerns about a softening housing market.

Clothing retailer Limited Brands Inc. said yesterday its fourth-quarter earnings climb 36 percent on strong sales at its Victoria's Secret stores and a continuing turnaround at its Express stores. Limited Brands, which beat Wall Street forecasts by 4 cents per share, added 68 cents, or 2.9 percent, to $24.09.

Mortgage broker Fannie Mae jumped $1.23 to $57.14 after investigators implicated the company's former chief executive and chief financial officer for its $11 billion accounting scandal. Investors showed relief that no current executives were named in the investigation.

Declining issues outnumbered advancers by more than 9 to 7 on the New York Stock Exchange, where preliminary consolidated volume came to 2.17 billion shares, compared with 2.25 billion at the same point yesterday.

The Russell 2000 index of smaller companies fell 1.08, or 0.15 percent, to 732.45.

Overseas, Japan's Nikkei stock average surged 1.99 percent. In Europe, Britain's FTSE 100 was down 0.62 percent, France's CAC-40 lost 0.02 percent for the session, and Germany's DAX index fell 0.07 percent.