Weak global markets drag stocks down

Three stocks fell for every two that rose on the New York Stock Exchange Thursday after manufacturing and business activity in both China and Europe slowed.

Richard Drew/AP
Trader Frederick Reimer works on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange Thursday. Stocks closed lower on Wall Street after weak economic reports from Europe and China.

A batch of worrying economic figures tugged stock markets slightly lower Thursday. Measures of manufacturing and business activity in both China and Europe slumped.

In the U.S., the railroad Norfolk Southern warned that it's shipping fewer goods, and the government gave investors another reminder that the job market remains weak.

The Standard & Poor's 500 index fell 0.79 of a point to close at 1,460.26. The Nasdaq composite index dropped 6.66 points to 3,175.96. Three stocks fell for every two that rose on the New York Stock Exchange.

Stock-market indexes reached four-year highs last week after the Federal Reserve unveiled a new plan to support the economy. Clark Yingst, chief market analyst at the securities firm Joseph Gunnar, said economic reports continue to draw a picture of an economic recovery stuck in low gear. To Yingst, it's hard to find any reason for stocks to climb much higher.

"You do have to wonder what the next catalyst is going to be," he said.

The Labor Department reported that 382,000 people applied for unemployment benefits last week, more than economists had expected. When applications consistently top 375,000, it suggests hiring is too weak to lower the unemployment rate.

More evidence of sluggishness came from Norfolk Southern. The railroad said late Thursday that falling coal prices and a drop in shipments will likely drag down quarterly earnings. That followed a warning from FedEx earlier this week that global trade has slumped to recession levels. Norfolk Southern's stock sank $6.58 to $66.11.

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In other trading, the Dow Jones industrial average gained 18.97 points to 13,596.93. Kraft Foods led the Dow up with a 1.9 percent surge, ending up 76 cents at $41.60.

Stronger earnings pushed ConAgra Foods up 6.2 percent. The maker of Healthy Choice packaged meals and Slim Jim beef jerky said its profit more than doubled, helped by lower food costs and a strong gain from a hedge on commodity prices. ConAgra's stock rose $1.59 to $27.24.

The real-estate website Trulia soared 41 percent in its first day of trading. Trulia priced its initial public offering at $17 on Wednesday, raising $102 million. Trulia's stock closed at an even $24.

The three major indexes have gained nearly 4 percent in September, historically the worst month for stocks. Since 1950, the S&P 500 has averaged a drop of 0.5 percent for the month. The Dow has lost an average of 0.8 percent.

Among other stocks making moves:

- Starbucks gained $1.08 to $51.19. The coffee giant said it will start selling a single-serve coffee machine starting at $199. The Verismo will compete with Green Mountain Coffee Roasters' Keurig machine and Nestle's Nespresso.

- Bed Bath & Beyond dropped $6.71 to $62.08. The housewares company reported quarterly earnings late Wednesday that fell short of analysts' expectations and said profits will likely stay under pressure.

- CarMax sank 6 percent after the chain of used-car dealers reported essentially flat quarterly net income, below analysts' expectations. Costs surged as CarMax opened more dealerships. Its stock lost $2.01 to $29.96.

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