By Jonathan Cheng
U.S. stocks declined Wednesday after a weak reading on U.S. private-sector hiring added to concerns over a weakening European economy.
The Dow Jones Industrial Average lost 32 points, or 0.2%, to 13248 in late trading Wednesday. The Standard Poor's 500-stock index gave up six points, or 0.4%, to 1400, while the Nasdaq Composite edged up three points, or 0.1%, to 3053.
Leading the losses were energy and financial stocks, which are more sensitive to signs of economic improvement and deterioration. Bank of America fell 1.3% and J.P. Morgan Chase lost 1.4%. Alcoa led the Dow decliners, falling 2.6%, while Chevron and Exxon Mobil dropped 1.4% and 1.2%, respectively.
The declines came after a report on private-sector job growth in April showed an increase of just 119,000 jobs, well below expectations for 175,000 new jobs and sharply lower than March's downwardly revised gain of 201,000 jobs. The private-sector jobs report is seen as a preview to the closely watched government employment report due on Friday. Separately, factory orders in March declined 1.5% from February, in line with expectations.
"Any way you slice it, it's still a troubling jobs report and it suggests hiring trend is slowing," said Larry Glazer, managing partner at Mayflower Advisors in Boston. "It's as much an indication of the hiring trend slowing, as it is of expectations being too high."
The weaker U.S. economic data, combined with disappointing readings from Europe, presented a new potential challenge one day after the Dow rose to close at its highest level since Dec. 28, 2007.
European markets erased earlier gains to trade flat or lower after the euro-zone manufacturing purchasing manager's index fell to its lowest level since June 2009. Meanwhile, the unemployment rate rose to a euro-era high of 10.9% in March from February's 10.8%. Germany saw its unemployment rate rise for just the second time in 15 months.
With most markets returning from the May Day holiday, the German DAX index fell 0.8% after being up as much as 1.7% earlier in the day. In France, the CAC-40 edged up 0.4% ahead of a televised debate between President Nicolas Sarkozy and Socialist challenger Francois Hollande.
"Our sense is that investors are playing it pretty conservatively--there's still a healthy sense of skepticism," said Michael Weinberg, global head of equities for Financial Risk Management, a hedge fund investment firm that manages over $8 billion.
With Europe's economic picture dimming and China still under a cloud, he said the threat of a global recession was still a plausible scenario.
"One of our suspicions is that this year unfolds a lot like last year, where we get these prolonged bouts of risk like we did in the back half of last year," said Mr. Weinberg, who said he was concerned about the impact of a Hollande victory in France's election on markets. "We're in for a few months of choppy, trendless markets."
Asian bourses were broadly higher on the back of Tuesday's U.S. gains and positive Chinese data released Wednesday. China's Shanghai Composite rallied 1.8% after the manufacturing purchasing manager's index rose to 53.3 in April from 53.1 in March. Japan's Nikkei Stock Average gained 0.3%.
Crude-oil futures declined 0.9% to $105.22 a barrel, while gold futures slipped 0.5% to $1,653.40 an ounce. Copper, meantime, declined 1.4%. The U.S. dollar surged against the euro and traded flat against the yen. Demand for U.S. Treasurys rose, sending the yield on the benchmark 10-year note back down to 1.924%.
In corporate news, Chesapeake Energy tumbled 14% to lead S&P 500 decliners, reversing Tuesday's gains, after the natural-gas company's first-quarter earnings and revenue missed expectations.
TripAdvisor led the S&P 500 gainers, rising 17% after the travel site reported first-quarter earnings and revenue that topped analyst projections.
MasterCard slipped 1% after the company reported an increase in operating expenses, and paid more in rebates and incentives to attract business. Rival Visa also declined 0.5%.
IntercontinentalExchange declined 2.8% after the commodities exchange operator reported muted trade in its futures franchise.
American Eagle Outfitters surged 17% after the teen-apparel retailer raised its first-quarter earnings guidance, pointing to stronger-than-expected sales and easing promotional activity. The company also easily topped revenue expectations.
Charming Shoppes leaped 24% after the apparel retailer agreed to be acquired by Ascena Retail Group for about $890 million in cash. Ascena soared 11%.
CVS Caremark rose 2.7% after the pharmacy chain reported better-than-expected first-quarter earnings and revenue, and raised its full-year earnings outlook.
Broadcom edged up 0.5% after the semiconductor company reported first-quarter adjusted earnings and revenue that topped analyst forecasts, but also saw a decline in gross margins.
Homebuilders generally gained after Beazer Homes USA recorded a surge in home closings and sounded a hopeful note for the months ahead. D.R. Horton, KB Home and NVR all rose.
Protalix BioTherapeutics climbed 14% after the company said the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved Protalix, a drug developed with Pfizer, for the treatment of Gaucher disease, a rare genetic disorder. Pfizer slipped 0.7%.