By Kate Gibson
U.S. stocks finished Thursday's volatile session off earlier lows but still well in the red after reports on joblessness, manufacturing and housing fueled concern about the economy ahead of the key monthly employment report Friday.
"The market is pricing in an economic future that is more dismal than reality. I don't think we're going to see a double-dip recession, but you could fairly say the market is pricing it in," said David Kelly, chief market strategist at J.P. Morgan Funds.
In a down start to the third quarter, stocks tumbled after disappointing reports on the labor, housing and manufacturing sectors.
Recovering from a 150-point drop, the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJI) remained mired in a sixth consecutive session of losses to finish down 41.49 points, or 0.4%, to 9,732.53.
The blue-chip average was weighed down by Bank of America Corp. (BAC), down 2.4%; General Electric Co. (GE), down 2.1%; and J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. (JPM), off 1.3%.
Down more than 16% from its 2010 high at the end of April, the S&P 500 Index (SPX) on Thursday fell to its lowest level since early September 2009. The broad market gauge ended down 3.34 points, or 0.3%, to 1,027.37.
Health care fronted the losses that extended to eight of the index's 10 industry groups. Among the laggards, Coventry Health Care Inc. (CVH) shares were down 2.8%, a day after the insurer said it would acquire Mercy Health Plans for an undisclosed sum.
Consumer-discretionary companies fared the best, with Apollo Group Inc. (APOL) up 2% after the for-profit educator late Wednesday reported better-than-expected results.
The Nasdaq Composite Index (RIXF) dropped 7.88 points, or 0.4%, to 2,101.36.
Decliners ran past advancers by 3 to 2 on the New York Stock Exchange, where 1.6 billion shares traded.
The selling was widespread, with investors unloading commodities such as gold, which fell $39.20 to finish at $1,206.70 an ounce on the New York Mercantile Exchange.
On Thursday, the government reported initial claims for jobless benefits climbed 13,000 last week to 472,000. Economists had expected claims to fall.
Separately, the National Association of Realtors said its count of pending home sales declined to a new low in May after a flurry of buying to take advantage of a tax credit that expired at the end of April.
The Institute for Supply Management reported its manufacturing index declined in June, though the industry trade group said the sector seemed to still be expanding.
The soft economic data came in the wake of a downbeat second quarter for investors, and one day before the government's June employment report.
The reports did nothing to "change the impression the economy is in a slow patch here," said Kelly of J.P. Morgan Funds, who believes the market's volatility is in large part due to an exodus of individual investors, leaving mostly hedge funds and others with shorter time frames.
"The ghost that is haunting us is the flash crash on May 6. I don't think professionals realize how rattled individual investors were by that. For many individual investors, that was the last straw," he added.
Yet individual investors increased their holdings of stocks in June, though still keeping a smaller percentage than average in equities, according to a survey released Thursday.
The American Association of Individual Investors said its surveyed members held nearly 52% of assets in stocks and related funds last month, up 1.9 percentage points from May. The historical average is 60%, according to the AAII.