Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Stocks dip in early trade

Stocks opened lower Wednesday amid more grim economic data and uncertainty surrounding a possible bailout of the ailing auto industry.

The Dow Jones industrial average (INDU) slid 0.1% shortly after the opening bell. The Standard & Poor's 500 (SPX) index was 0.1% lower and the Nasdaq composite (COMP) both retreated 0.3%.

Wall Street managed to hold gains Tuesday, ending in positive territory for only the second time in 10 trading days, as the debate over a bailout of the auto industry remained inconclusive.

Economic reports released early Wednesday cast a pall over the market, highlighting weakness in the housing market and anemic consumer spending.

Housing: More bad news emerged from the housing sector Wednesday as readings on housing starts and building permit sank to historic lows during the month of October.

The Commerce Department said housing starts fell to an annual rate of 791,000 last month, down from the revised reading of 828,000 in the prior month. That represents the lowest level since the department began tracking starts in 1959.

Economists surveyed by were expecting a reading of 780,000 for the month.

And building permits plunged 12% last month to an annual rate of 708,000, breaking the previous low of 709,000 in March 1975. The annual rate for September was revised to 805,000, the government said.

Concerns about the housing slump pressured stocks a day earlier after a survey of homebuilders showed sentiment fell to yet another low in November.

But U.S. stocks managed to finish the day in positive territory. The Dow gained 1.8%, the S&P 500 index rose 1% and the Nasdaq composite ended little changed.

Overseas markets weren't buoyed, however, by the gains on Wall Street. Asian markets finished Wednesday's session lower and European stocks tumbled in morning trading.

Consumer prices: Consumer prices also plunged by a record amount in October, the Labor Department reported.

Its Consumer Price Index fell 1% last month, representing the biggest one-month decline in prices at the consumer level. Economists surveyed by anticipated a reading of 0.8% in October.

The core CPI, which excludes the volatile food and energy prices fell 0.1% during the month. Economists had expected a 0.1% rise after a 0.1% jump in September.

On Tuesday, the government reported that the wholesale price of goods fell 2.8% in October, a record drop that was steeper than expected.

Big Three: Still, investors are expected to be paying close attention to what happens with the nation's Big 3 automakers.

The CEOs of Ford (F, Fortune 500), General Motors (GM, Fortune 500) and Chrysler head back to Capitol Hill to plead with House lawmakers for a bailout.

The industry has been lobbying hard for a $25 billion loan from the $700 billion bailout slated for the finance sector.

Their case for a bailout came under sharp scrutiny Tuesday when the auto executives testified before the Senate Banking Committee.

"The problem is the real specter of what we do on the GM front," said Art Hogan, chief market strategist at Jefferies & Co. "It's really hanging over the market right now. It's the 400-pound gorilla."

Hogan said the failure of General Motors "would be catastrophe for the economy." But he said the industry faces a serious challenge in creating "fuel-efficient and in-demand" vehicles in an economy with "too many cars and not enough buyers."

Fed minutes: At 2 p.m. ET, the Fed releases the minutes from its Oct. 29 meeting. The central bank cut a key short-term interest rate by a half-percentage point to 1% at that meeting.

Companies: Stocks to watch include Boeing (BA, Fortune 500). The company is delaying jet deliveries by as much as 10 weeks as it attempts to recover from a strike by its machinists, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal.

Oil and money: The dollar displayed some weakness, falling in the face of the euro, the yen and the British pound. Oil prices fell 19 cents a barrel to $54.20 in electronic trading.

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