Stocks bounce around on global economic worries

Friday, March 23, 2012, Vol. 36, No. 12

NEW YORK (AP) — Stocks are bouncing between small gains and losses as investors weigh the prospects of a global economic slowdown even as several U.S. companies report strong earnings.

Oil prices are continuing to march higher, which could hurt consumer spending. A decline in new home sales suggested that the U.S. real estate market hasn't emerged from its slump.

The Dow Jones industrial average edged up 28 points to 13,073 at midday Friday. The Standard & Poor's 500 index inched up two points to 1,395 and the Nasdaq composite fell five to 3,058.

Home builders and home improvement stocks fell after the Commerce Department said sales of new homes fell 1.6 percent last month. Sales have fallen nearly 7 percent since December. Prices surged to their highest level in eight months, suggesting that builders anticipate more demand in the months ahead. PulteGroup and Lowe's fell 2 percent, while Home Depot was down close to 1 percent.

A wide range of companies including Nike, Oracle, FedEx, Tiffany and Discover Financial have reported stellar earnings this week. However, the strength comes tinged with worry for some of the companies that rely on sales in Asia and Europe, such as Nike, FedEx and Tiffany. Reports in China and Europe earlier in the week pointed to a likely slowdown in those economies.

Nike was off 3 percent, FedEx down less than 1 percent and Tiffany was off close to 2 percent.

American consumers, who drive two-thirds of the economy, are spending more in stores and restaurants. But investors are worried about how long that will last if oil prices continue to rise.

Darden Restaurants, which operates Olive Garden and Red Lobster, beat Wall Street forecasts with a 8.5 percent increase in profits after warm weather brought more people to its restaurants. Darden fell 2.4 percent.

Crude oil rose 1.6 percent after a brief downturn Thursday. Gasoline has risen 59 cents per gallon since Jan. 1 and the average price nationwide is above $4 in at least eight states, plus the District of Columbia.

The dollar fell against the euro and the yen. Treasury prices and gold rose. The yield on the benchmark 10-year Treasury note fell to 2.24 percent.

And then there is China and Europe. New surveys showed a contraction in the manufacturing sector in China, a bellwether for world demand as it produces and exports a huge amount of consumer goods, and one of the world's largest mining companies expects reduced demand there. In Europe, Ireland dipped back into recession.

In other corporate news:

— Micron Technology fell 4 percent, one of the biggest drops in the S&P 500. The maker of computer chips and flash memory reported a larger loss than analysts expected after the market closed Thursday.

—Fertilizer maker Mosaic Co. was up 3 after JPMorgan analysts upgraded the stock for securing new contracts.

— Morgan Stanley stock moved up 3 percent, after a Credit Suisse analyst upgraded its stock on an improved outlook for its investment banking business.