Closing Market Report

Star-Bulletin news services

Wednesday, March 26, 2003

Chemical weapons fear
sends Wall Street lower

By Amy Baldwin
Associated Press

NEW YORK >> Wall Street fluctuated and closed modestly lower today as investors reacted to disquieting developments in the war in Iraq. Traders also collected profits from yesterday's advance and last week's big rally.

Stocks tumbled on reports that Iraq appeared prepared to use chemical weapons and on a warning from President Bush that the conflict is far from over.

Still, the market's weakness wasn't surprising given the stunning rise stocks made just before and soon after war began on March 19. Analysts say stocks will continue to run into resistance as long as the outcome in Iraq is uncertain and that investors' biggest concern is that the conflict will drag on longer than they'd anticipated.

"We are getting to the reality of what war is," said Chris Johnson, manager of quantitative analysis at Schaeffer's Investment Research in Cincinnati.

The Dow Jones industrial average closed down 50.35, or 0.6 percent, at 8,229.88, according to preliminary calculations. The Dow traded lower for most of the session, falling as much as 92.50, although briefly turned positive, eking out a gain of 4.76.

Trading has been erractic since the war in Iraq began last Wednesday. Yesterday, the Dow gained 65 points, although today's slippage wiped out much of that advance. Stocks dropped 307 points on Monday in a pullback that was expected after a 997-point gain over the previous eight sessions.

The broader market also pulled back. The Standard & Poor's 500 index declined 4.79, or 0.6 percent, to 869.95. The Nasdaq composite index fell 3.56, or 0.3 percent, to 1,387.45.

Trading was light, as it was for weeks leading up to military action in Iraq, indicating that many investors simply aren't participating on Wall Street.

Declining issues had a narrow, 4-to-3 lead over advancers on the New York Stock Exchange. Trading volume was light.

The Russell 2000 index, which tracks smaller company stocks, fell 3.61, or 1 percent, to 368.18.

Investors were unnerved when Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks told reporters 3,000 chemical suits had been found in a hospital in central Iraq, heightening fears that Saddam Hussein's regime was ready to use chemical weapons.

Today's economic news provided no comfort for investors, showing that business remains weak. The Commerce Department reported that orders to U.S. factories for big-ticket goods fell by 1.2 percent in February, the biggest decline in three months. Still, the reading was better than expected as economists had predicted that orders for durable goods -- products expected to last at least three years -- would decline by 1.5 percent.

While investors are focused mainly on developments in Iraq, analysts say when they turn their attention back to the economy they'll have more reasons to keep selling stocks. Analysts believe the market will encounter more declines next month as companies start releasing first-quarter earnings.

Overseas, Japan's Nikkei stock average finished Wednesday up 1.4 percent. In Europe, France's CAC-40 fell 0.3 percent and Germany's DAX index sank 2.2 percent, while Britain's FTSE 100 rose 0.8 percent .

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