US stocks fall on worries about Europe's economy

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

NEW YORK (AP) — Stocks fell Thursday for the third day in a row as investors were daunted by reminders that Europe has not solved its debt crisis and the U.S. economy is far from healed, despite progress on both fronts.

The Dow Jones industrial average was down 61 points in the early afternoon to 13,065. The broader Standard & Poor's 500 fell 11 points to 1,394. The Nasdaq composite index fell 28 to 3,077.

The declines came despite incrementally good news about the U.S. economy. The government said that the number of people seeking unemployment benefits last week dropped by 5,000 to about 359,000, the lowest since April 2008

The government also said that the U.S. economy grew at an annual rate of 3 percent in the fourth quarter, which met analysts' expectations and was the fastest pace since spring 2010.

But there was reason for concern, too: The government said that many more people than it originally estimated filed unemployment claims in recent months. And economists believe the country's growth has now slowed to about 1.5 percent.

The market's rally this year has been driven by improvement in the U.S. economy. Now, "investors are pausing to examine whether the growth is real," said Lawrence Creatura, a Rochester, N.Y., portfolio manager at Federated Investors.

Investors also may be waiting to see companies' earnings for the first three months of the year. The earnings season traditionally kicks off with Alcoa, which reports April 10.

"We're in that odd period of silence," Creatura said. "It's like a bad Western movie where one guy turns to the other and says, 'It's quiet out here,' and the other says, 'Yeah, too quiet.' That's what today feels like it."

The yield on the 10-year Treasury note fell to 2.16 percent from 2.21 percent. The yield often drops when more people put their money into the perceived safety of bonds, which can be a sign they are pessimistic about the economy.

European markets fell across the board, despite a report from Germany that its unemployment rate fell slightly over the month. The benchmark stock indexes were down 1.8 percent in Germany, 1.2 percent in Britain and 1.4 percent in France.

Though Greece is no longer on the brink of default, deep problems remain for the continent, where stronger countries are arguing that they shouldn't have to bail out weaker ones.

In Spain, workers took to the streets to protest government spending cuts, underscoring the difficulty that governments will have in reining in overblown spending.

The price of oil fell $2.07 per barrel in New York to $103.34 after France's prime minister said there was a "good chance" the U.S. and Europe would release oil reserves, which could drive down prices by adding supply.

President Barack Obama made a plea to Congress to end $4 billion in tax subsidies to oil companies, but he was rebuffed Thursday when the Senate turned back a Democratic bill to repeal the tax breaks.

Gasoline costs an average $3.92 per gallon, and investors worry that the economic recovery could be threatened as the price of gas inches toward $4.11, the record, set in 2008.

Among the stocks making big moves:

— Illumina, a diagnostics company, rose more than 4 percent to $52.02 after the Swiss pharmaceutical giant Roche Group raised its offer for the company to $51 per share.

— Best Buy fell more than 7 percent after announcing big spending cuts, including plans to close 50 of its big-box stores.

— JetBlue fell more than 7 percent, two days after passengers said a pilot came unhinged and forced a JetBlue flight to make an emergency landing on a flight from New York to Las Vegas. The stock decline could also be related to higher oil prices, which cut into airlines' profits.