Stocks Fall After Bush Announces Plan

By Madlen Read

The Associated Press

Friday 18 January 2008

New York - Wall Street resumed its downward trek Friday as skittish investors, unable to hold on to much optimism about the economy, drew little comfort from President Bush's stimulus plan.

Investors had already pulled back from a big early gain, with the major indexes trading mixed as Bush began to speak. By the time the president finished announcing a plan for about $145 billion worth of tax relief, the indexes were well into negative territory.

"It's disappointed in the size of the economic growth package. Wall Street's showing its displeasure," said Kim Caughey, equity research analyst at Fort Pitt Capital Group in Pittsburgh. "Honestly, I think the institutional investors understand the limits to the government's ability to enact economic change."

The Dow Jones industrial average, up more than 180 points in morning trading, was down 85.11, or 0.70 percent, at 12,074.10. The Dow plunged 306 points Thursday amid deepening pessimism about the economy.

The broader Standard & Poor's 500 index fell 15.40, or 1.16 percent, to 1,317.85, while the technology-focused Nasdaq composite index fell 10.38, or 0.44 percent, to 2,336.52.

Disappointment with Bush's plan came as investors were searching for those companies that might be weathering the economic slowdown well.

Some are indeed doing better than expected - like International Business Machines Corp., which told Wall Street late Thursday to raise its 2008 profit estimates for the tech company, and General Electric Co., which posted a fourth-quarter profit rise Friday.

But many others are struggling. Washington Mutual Inc. reported a steep loss late Thursday for the fourth quarter, as Citigroup Inc. and Merrill Lynch did earlier in the week. With the banking industry trying to fix its shrinking portfolios and preparing for more distress in consumer debt, the economy may only have the government to fall back on - and Wall Street didn't hear enough from Bush Friday to placate investors.

Government bonds showed little movement after Bush's speech. The yield on the benchmark 10-year Treasury note, which moves opposite its price, stood at 3.63 percent - flat with late Thursday.

On Thursday, a dismal reading on the Philadelphia Fed's manufacturing index and ratings agency downgrades of bond insurers sent the market tumbling. On Friday, a Bank of America Corp. analyst cut its ratings on three bond insurers - MBIA Inc., Ambac Financial Group and Security Capital Assurance Ltd. - to "Neutral" from "Buy."

MBIA fell $2.06, or 22 percent, to $7.16, after a sharp drop Thursday.

Ambac rebounded from Thursday's drop, though, rising 25 cents, or 4 percent, to $6.49. The company said Friday it will ditch its previous plan to raise $1 billion in capital, a decision many investors considered an ill-advised move to maintain its ratings.

Security Capital Assurance fell 21 cents, or 11.5 percent, to $1.61.

A better-than-expected reading on consumer sentiment came as a pleasant surprise to investors Friday, but ultimately did not help Wall Street save its early advance. The University of Michigan's index, which most economists expected show a decline for mid-January, rose instead. Though not a perfect predictor of consumer spending, the report gave Wall Street some hope that Americans' buying might not drop off too precipitously amid worries about a recession.

The Index of Leading Economic Indicators, a gauge of future economic activity skidded 0.2 percent in December, registering its third consecutive monthly decline.

Federal Reserve monetary policymakers meet Jan. 29-30, and the market widely expects them to lower the key interest rate to stimulate the economy, perhaps by a half-point. Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond President Jeffrey Lacker said Friday that more rate cuts are "quite possible."

The dollar rose against most major currencies, while gold slipped.

Crude oil futures fell 20 cents to $89.93 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange.

The Russell 2000 index of smaller companies fell 9.97, or 1.46 percent, to 670.60. Meanwhile, chip maker Advanced Micro Devices Inc. late Thursday said its fourth-quarter net loss widened, but the loss was smaller than Wall Street predicted. AMD surged 63 cents, or 10 percent, to $6.97.

IBM rose $2.25, or 2.2 percent, to $103.35 on its strong outlook.

Washington Mutual rose 8 cents to $12.54. Many investors, in anticipation of an even bigger fourth-quarter loss, had driven the savings and loan's stock sharply lower Thursday.

In overseas trade, Japan's Nikkei stock index rose 0.56 percent and Hong Kong's Hang Seng index advanced 0.35 percent. In Europe, London's FTSE 100 fell 0.01 percent, Frankfurt's DAX fell 1.34 percent and Paris' CAC fell 1.25 percent.