--Stocks end back-and-forth trading day lower
--Declines are sixth in past seven sessions
--Economic data mixed, distorted by superstorm Sandy
NEW YORK--The Dow industrials ended a whipsaw day with their sixth decline in the seven sessions since the presidential election, as a group of middling economic data reports failed to snap stocks out of their slump.
The Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 28.57 points, or 0.2%, to 12542.38. The average has shed more than 5% since the U.S. presidential election. The blue chips swung between gains and losses several times, and separately, hovered around zero for some time.
The Standard & Poor's 500-stock index lost 2.16 points, or 0.2%, to 1353.33. The Nasdaq Composite shed 9.87 points, or 0.3%, to 2836.94. Telecommunications companies were the biggest laggers in the S&P 500, followed by utilities.
Economic data points provided a mixed view of the state of the U.S. recovery, with readings obscured by superstorm Sandy.
"Unfortunately, I think we're going to see some skewed numbers from the hurricane for a while. The reason it's unfortunate is that we'd love to have more accuracy, and we were starting to see a positive trend," said Mike Shea, managing partner with Direct Access Partners.
Initial claims for jobless benefits in the latest week spiked to 439,000, well above the 375,000 claims expected by economists, and analysts pinned much of the jump on the storm.
"There's no indication elsewhere that the gentle improvement in the labor market has done anything other than move forward," said Andrew Wilkinson, economic strategist with Miller Tabak.
The Philadelphia Fed's manufacturing index for November came in lower than expected, with its reading of -10.7 indicating contraction. Amna Asaf, an economist with Capital Economics, wrote in a note that the Philadelphia reading was also likely affected by Sandy.
The consumer price index for October rose 0.1% on the month, in line with economist expectations. The Federal Reserve Bank of New York's Empire State index of manufacturing activity for November improved slightly, to -5.2 in November from -6.2 in October. However, it indicates the fourth consecutive month of contraction.
Stocks hit their session lows around noon, when concerns spread about tensions in the Middle East, with reports circulating that a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip landed near Tel Aviv.
"It seems like everything is going the wrong way today. If tensions rise, then we run that risk of rising oil and gas prices as we close in on the holiday season," said Alan Gayle, senior investment strategist with RidgeWorth Investments, an Atlanta-based firm with $47 billion under management.
In earnings news, Dow component Wal-Mart Stores dropped 3.6% after the discount retailing giant reported worse-than-expected third-quarter revenue and fourth-quarter projections. It also indicated that challenges regarding alleged violations of the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act appear to have expanded. Its big-box retail rival Target gained 1.7% after beating Wall Street estimates and providing an outlook that exceeded expectations.
European markets closed broadly lower, with the Stoxx Europe 600 down 1% at a 2 1/2-month low, as investors were spooked by the euro zone's move into recession and weak U.K. data.
Third-quarter gross domestic product for the 17-member euro zone fell 0.1% on the quarter, or 0.4% on an annualized basis, following a 0.7% annualized decline in the second quarter. Economists generally define a recession as two-consecutive quarters of contraction. U.K. retail sales slid 0.8% in October versus expectations of a 0.2% monthly decline.
Asian markets were mostly lower on the back of sharp weakness in the U.S., although Japanese stocks rallied amid hopes for further monetary stimulus. China's Shanghai Composite shed 1.2%, while Japan's Nikkei Stock Average rallied 1.9%.
Front-month crude-oil futures fell 1% to settle at $85.45 a barrel, while November gold futures eased 0.9% to settle at $1,713.30 a troy ounce. The dollar lost ground against the euro, but rallied against the yen. Yields on the benchmark 10-year U.S. Treasury bond fell to 1.588% as prices rose.
Diamond Foods skidded 21% after it said it swung to a loss for the first three quarters of fiscal 2012, as the snack food company completed a restatement of its financials required after an internal probe uncovered improper accounting of payments to walnut growers.
NetApp rallied 11% after the data-storage company reported better-than-expected fiscal second-quarter earnings and revenue and provided a somewhat upbeat earnings outlook for the current quarter.
Viacom rose 2.6% after the media giant reported better-than-expected fiscal fourth-quarter earnings, offsetting a slight shortfall in revenue.
DryShips slumped 20% after the dry bulk shipper reported a wider-than-expected third-quarter loss and revenue that missed forecasts.
Children's Place Retail Stores lost 14% after the company missed Wall Street estimates for its total sales.
Write to Alexandra Scaggs at email@example.com
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