Originally created 02/28/04

Conflicting data leave market gauges in limbo



NEW YORK - A selloff in tech stocks and buying in consumer products left Wall Street little changed Friday as investors tried to reconcile conflicting economic data - a surprisingly strong gross domestic product figure and a drop in a consumer confidence measure. The major indexes ended February mixed, stalling an 11-month rally, and the Nasdaq composite index suffered its first monthly decline since September.

The day's trading continued the listless pattern that marked Wall Street's performance throughout February. Strong, early gains were eroded by profit-taking on tech stocks, but the markets recovered somewhat by the afternoon.

"We saw some selling in semiconductors that took everything with it, but there's no real reason behind it," said Larry Wachtel, a market analyst at Wachovia Securities. "It's a quirky kind of market."

Mr. Wachtel added that until economic data provides a stronger indication of the pace of the recovery, the wavering market will likely continue.

The Dow Jones industrial average gained 3.78, or 0.04 percent, to 10,583.92. The Dow ended the week 0.3 percent lower, its second-straight weekly decline.

Other gauges were narrowly mixed.

The technology-focused Nasdaq lost 2.75, or 0.1 percent, at 2,029.82, finishing the week 0.4 percent lower, the sixth-straight down week for the index.

The Standard & Poor's 500 index was up 0.03 at 1,144.94. It was up less than 0.1 percent higher for the week.

For the month of February, the Nasdaq lost 1.8 percent. The Dow gained 0.9 percent and the S&P 500 climbed 1.2 percent.

February lived up to its reputation as the weakest month for the stock market. In spite of widespread expectations that stocks could retreat, there was still disappointment that Wall Street's rally of the past year had gone into at least a temporary limbo.

Some of the declines for the month came from a letdown after a solid fourth-quarter earnings season. But there also were confusing economic numbers that deprived the market of guidance for the near future.

Traders were pleased Friday by the Commerce Department's report that the economy grew by an unexpected 4.1 percent annual rate in the last quarter of 2003. The government's latest data on the gross domestic product beat the 3.8 percent growth prediction by economists.

Initially, Wall Street did not seem dissuaded by the University of Michigan's latest consumer confidence report. The school's consumer sentiment index for February slid to 94.4, versus 103.8 in January. The reading was in line with expectations.

"If you look at it historically, there's a real disconnect between what consumers tell you versus what they actually do," said Scott Wren, an equity strategist for A.G. Edwards & Sons. "Consumers are continuing to spend money in this economy."