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U.S. Stocks Tilt Lower on Raft of Weak Economic Reports

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02/21/2013 | 04:53pm CEST

--Stocks decline on economic worries; DJIA down 52, S&P off six

--Euro-zone economic weakness sets bearish tone for early trading

--Benchmarks extend declines following surprise contraction in Philly Fed reading

   By Alexandra Scaggs 

NEW YORK--Stocks declined on economic worries, as euro-zone weakness, the threat of an end to Federal Reserve stimulus and a surprise slowdown in a Philadelphia-region manufacturing reading jarred investors.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 52 points, or 0.4%, to 13875, extending Wednesday's declines. The Standard & Poor's 500-stock index gave up six points, or 0.4%, to 1505, as nine of 10 sectors traded in the red, and the Nasdaq Composite Index lost 17 points, or 0.5%, to 3147.

On Wednesday, blue chips posted their second-biggest drop of the year as investors were jarred by the potential for an earlier-than-expected end to the Fed's experimental bond-buying programs.

"The market was looking for an excuse to go down and the Fed provided it," said Paul Zemsky, chief investment officer of multiasset strategies at ING U.S. Investment Management, which oversees about $170 billion.

Stocks extended their declines after the Philadelphia Federal Reserve's February index of business activity, a read of business conditions for manufacturers in the region, posted a surprise decline to -12.5 from January's -5.8.

"The fact that we are seeing evidence of a continuing slowdown in the manufacturing sector is a bit concerning," said Jim Baird, chief investment strategist for Plante Moran Financial Advisors, which oversees $7.2 billion in assets.

Initial claims for jobless benefits rose to 362,000 in the latest week, more than the 350,000 expected. The consumer price index for January was unchanged on the month; excluding volatile food and energy costs, it rose 0.3%.

Existing-home sales for January showed a slight increase to a seasonally adjusted annualized rate of 4.92 million, mostly inline with expectations. The Conference Board's Leading Economic Index for January is gained 0.2%, just below expectations of a 0.3% rise.

Wal-Mart gained 2.2% after the blue-chip discount retailer reported earnings that topped analyst estimates, helping to offset a first-quarter outlook that was below current analyst projections.

Among other Dow components, Hewlett-Packard nudged 0.3% lower ahead of fiscal first-quarter results after the closing bell.

The losses in U.S. stocks were more modest than declines in overseas markets.

In Europe, the Stoxx Europe 600 fell 1.4% on disappointing euro-zone data. Markit's preliminary composite purchasing-managers' index for the euro zone fell to 47.3 in February from January's 48.6, and below expectations of 48.5. Readings below 50 indicate contraction. Within the euro zone, Italy's FTSE MIB skidded 2.7% and Germany's DAX slid 1.8%.

The weak data sent the euro down to a six-week low against the dollar. Meanwhile, the dollar lost ground against the yen.

Asian markets also suffered steep declines, highlighted by a 3% tumble in China's Shanghai Composite to a one-month low, the biggest percentage decline since November 2011. Exacerbating worries about the Fed easing up on its stimulus program, China's State Council on Wednesday said it would continue with market controls to curb increases in property prices.

Japan's Nikkei Stock Average shed 1.4% and Australia's S&P ASX 200 dropped 2.3%.

Gold futures were mostly flat at a several-month low of $1,578.20 a troy ounce. Crude-oil futures lost 2.3% to $93.04 a barrel. The yield on the benchmark 10-year U.S. Treasury note fell to 1.975% as prices rose.

In other corporate news, Tesla Motors skidded 9.4% after the electric-car maker reported a wider-than-anticipated fourth-quarter loss and revenue that rose less than expected, as gross margin narrowed sharply.

VeriFone Systems tumbled 38% after the electronic-payments company indicated that fiscal first-quarter earnings and revenue would fall well short of expectations, citing weak economic conditions in Europe and delayed projects from several major customers. It also provided a downbeat outlook for the current quarter.

Carlyle Group slumped 8.6% after it missed analyst estimates for its earnings and revenue. The private-equity firm recorded lower performance fees on top of an investment loss.

Hormel Foods rose 1.2% after it reported fiscal first-quarter earnings and revenue that were inline with analyst estimates and raised its full-year earnings outlook to reflect the benefit of buying the Skippy peanut-butter business last month.

Write to Alexandra Scaggs at alexandra.scaggs@dowjones.com.

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