Stocks slip on weak earnings

Stocks fell on Wall Street Thursday after disappointing earnings from a range of companies. Commodities stocks held steady following a wild couple of days.

Brendan McDermid/Reuters/File
The US flag hangs outside the New York Stock Exchange. Stocks sank Thursday after the release of weak quarterly results.

Disappointing earnings from a range of companies pushed the stock market lower on Thursday, giving major indexes their third loss this week.

The stock prices of Morgan Stanley, UnitedHealth Group and others sank after they turned in weaker quarterly results. Prices of commodities held steady following a wild couple of days. Government bond yields remained near their lowest point of the year as investors sought safety.

The Standard & Poor's 500 index lost 10.40 points to close at 1,541.61, a decline of 0.7 percent.

Compared with the steep drops earlier this week, the losses on Thursday looked tame. The S&P 500 lost 2 percent on Monday, its worst day of the year, when a slowdown in China's economic growth set off a rout in prices for gold, oil and other commodities and pummeled the stocks of companies that make them. After reaching a record high a week ago, the index has now slumped 3 percent.

One reason behind the market's sudden turn might simply be that investors wanted to take some of their winnings off the table, said Joseph Tanious, global market strategist at J.P. Morgan Funds. At the start of April, the S&P 500 was already up 10 percent for 2013, more than investors can expect to get in a whole year.

"For a while there, it seemed like all the headlines were 'stock market hits all-time high,'" Tanious said. "When they see things like that, investors get nervous and look for reasons to sell."

Profit slipped at Morgan Stanley as the bank made less money from trading bonds and commodities, a common theme for many investment banks this earnings season. Morgan Stanley lost 5 percent to $20.31.

UnitedHealth's profit fell short of analysts' estimates, and the country's largest health insurer said it expects federal budget cuts to pressure its earnings this year. Its stock lost 4 percent to $59.69.

EBay fell 6 percent to $52.82 after the online auction company cut its forecast for profit in the current quarter.

The market didn't get any help from economic news Thursday. Investors pointed to reports that more people applied for unemployment benefits last week and manufacturing slowed in the mid-Atlantic region. That followed several recent signs of weakness in the economy, including a sharp slowdown in hiring last month and poor retail sales.

The market's drop was tempered by better profits at Verizon, Pepsi and Union Pacific. Verizon Communications' profit beat analysts' predictions as wireless revenue kept rising at a rate of 9 percent, the envy of the industry. Profit and sales for Pepsi also surpassed estimates.

Verizon's stock gained 3 percent to $50.91, while Pepsi's climbed 3 percent to $81.25.

Higher shipping rates pushed Union Pacific's profit up 11 percent, and the railroad said it expects to ship more goods later this year. Union Pacific rose 4 percent to $142.46.

Analysts have set a low bar for first-quarter earnings. They predict that companies in the S&P 500 will report that earnings climbed just 1.5 percent in the first quarter compared with the same period a year ago, a slowdown from the 7.7 percent growth in the fourth quarter, according to S&P Capital IQ.

So far, companies are easily topping the estimates of Wall Street analysts. Of the 61 companies that turned in results through Wednesday, 39 of them have exceeded forecasts.

In other trading, the Dow Jones industrial average fell 81.45 points to 14,537.14, down 0.6 percent. The Nasdaq composite lost 38.31 points to 3,166.36, down 1.2 percent.

In the market for U.S. government bonds, Treasury prices rose and their yields fell as traders moved money into low-risk assets. The yield on the 10-year Treasury note slipped back to 1.68 percent, matching its lowest level of the year. The yield was 1.70 percent late Wednesday.

Commodities prices held steady following sharp falls earlier this week. Crude oil rose $1.05 to $87.73 a barrel and gold edged up $9.80 to $1,392.50 an ounce.

Crude had lost $10 a barrel over the past two weeks as the outlook for the global economy weakens and oil supplies remain high. On Monday, Gold fell 9 percent, its biggest plunge in 30 years, as inflation in the U.S. remained weak.

"Earnings are always important," said Randy Frederick, managing director of active trading and derivatives at the brokerage Charles Schwab. "But this week they've taken a back seat to all the other headlines, like slower growth in China, the sharp sell-off in gold and then the bombing in Boston."

For the week, the Dow is down 2.2 percent and the S&P 500 is down 2.9 percent.

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