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Stocks Slip on Economic Fears

Jobless claims disappoint, U.S. stages afternoon rally.

A steady drumbeat of mostly disappointing economic reports weighed on stock markets in Europe and the U.S. today.

 

After spending most of the day in solidly in negative territory, the S&P Retail Index ended down just 0.16 points to 622.43, pulled down by electronics chain Best Buy Co., which posted steep losses and outlined a new plan to better compete with a smaller retail footprint. The Dow Jones Industrial Average squeaked out a 19.61 point gain to 13,145.82.

 

Of the companies that did make a decisive move up were Movado Group Inc., which rose 9.7 percent to $24.43 after posting a $10.7 million fourth-quarter profit following year-ago losses, and Charming Shoppes Inc., up 7.5 percent to $6.05.

 

Investors were largely looking at the broader picture, though.

 

The U.S. Labor Department said initial jobless claims slipped to 359,000 last week from 364,000 the prior week — but the improvement missed the expectations of economists, who had been looking for a drop in claims to 350,000.

 

Retail stocks have been rallying, in part because of a general strengthening seen in the labor market. Federal Reserve chairman Ben S. Bernanke, however, has warned that long-term unemployment is still a problem and that the jobs picture might not be as strong as it appears.

 

In Europe, the FTSE MIB in Milan led the way down, dropping 3.3 percent to 15,908.85, followed by the DAX in Frankfurt, which tumbled 1.8 percent to 6,875.15. The CAC 40 in Paris sank 1.4 percent to 3,381.12 and the FTSE 100 in London was down 1.2 percent to 5,742.03.

 

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) said it expects the U.K. economy to contract in the first three months of the year, although other bodies indicate that there could be growth.

 

The U.K. service sector grew 0.2 percent in January, compared with the previous month, according to the U.K. Office of National Statistics. The news is widely seen as a harbinger of positive GDP figures for the first quarter, which are set to be announced next month. Meanwhile, U.K. house prices fell 1 percent in March, compared with the previous month.

 

And the European Commission’s economic sentiment indicator for the Euro zone fell in March, compared with February.

 

Retail and luxury stocks were mostly down, dampened by news from Hennes & Mauritz, whose 4.6 percent profit increase in the three months to February 29 fell short of analysts’ targets. The Swedish retailer said increased purchasing costs, higher cotton prices, and the company’s long-term investments weighed on margins.

 

And a 72.2 percent rise in Prada’s net profits for 2011 did little to lift retail and luxury stocks worldwide. Shares of Prada rose just 1.8 percent to 49.55 Hong Kong dollars.

 

Among the stocks that lost the most were Asos.com, which tumbled 3.5 percent to 17.60 pounds; Hugo Boss, which sank 3.1 percent to 84.19 euros; Safilo Group, which was down 5 percent to 4.77 euros; LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton, which fell 2.9 percent to 126.15 euros; and Ferragamo, which was down 3.7 percent to 15.59 euros.

 

The euro traded at $1.33 while the pound traded at $1.59 and the Hong Kong dollar went for 12.88 cents.