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U.S. Stocks on Track for Second Day of Declines

02/21/2013 | 04:10pm US/Eastern

--U.S. stocks look set to notch a second day of declines

--Eight S&P sectors decline, with technology and materials leading the drop

--DJIA falls 29 points after posting second-biggest drop of the year Wednesday

   By Alexandra Scaggs 

NEW YORK--Major U.S. stock benchmarks declined Thursday as a pair of sour economic readings piled on top of investor worries about a possible earlier-than-expected end to central-bank stimulus, though the blue chips retreated from their session lows in afternoon trading.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 29 points, or 0.2%, to 13899. The Standard & Poor's 500-stock index gave up seven points, or 0.5%, to 1505, as eight of its 10 sectors traded in the red, led by growth-sensitive technology and materials shares. The tech-heavy Nasdaq Composite Index lost 30 points, or 1%, to 3134.

The Dow industrials' Thursday declines were muted after they posted their second-biggest drop of the year Wednesday. Investors were jarred by the potential for an earlier-than-expected end to the Fed's experimental bond-buying programs, known as quantitative easing.

Easing "has been the source of a significant boost for the equity markets," said Natalie Trunow, chief investment officer for equities with Calvert Investments, which oversees $12 billion. "The follow-through [selling] today was on the realization that there is an end to it at some point."

Stocks extended their declines after the Philadelphia Federal Reserve's February index of business activity, an indicator of business conditions for manufacturers in the region, posted a surprise deterioration 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 manages $7.2 billion in assets.

Separately, initial claims for unemployment 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, but increased by 0.3% excluding volatile food and energy costs.

Sales of existing homes for January showed a slight increase to a seasonally adjusted annualized rate of 4.92 million, which was mostly in line with expectations. The Conference Board's Leading Economic Index for January gained 0.2%, just below expectations of a 0.3% rise.

Wal-Mart gained 1.7% after the blue-chip discount retailer reported earnings that exceeded analysts' estimates, helping to offset a first-quarter earnings outlook that was below analyst projections.

The broader market's losses in U.S. stocks were more modest than declines in overseas markets.

The Stoxx Europe 600 fell 1.5% in response to disappointing economic news for the euro zone. Markit's preliminary composite purchasing-managers' index for the currency bloc 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 3.1% and Germany's DAX slid 1.9%.

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

Asian markets also suffered steep declines, highlighted by a 3% tumble in China's Shanghai Composite, the biggest percentage decline since November 2011. Exacerbating worries about the Fed easing up on its stimulus program, China's State Council said Wednesday 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%.

Front-month gold futures for February delivery were mostly flat, at $1578.20 a troy ounce. Front-month crude-oil futures for April delivery lost 2.5% to $92.84 a barrel. Yields on the benchmark 10-year U.S. Treasury note fell to settle at 1.977% as prices rose.

Tesla Motors skidded 8.5% after the electric-car maker reported a wider-than-anticipated fourth-quarter loss and revenue that rose less than expected. Gross margin narrowed sharply.

Apple edged slightly lower, losing 0.6%, after Greenlight Capital founder David Einhorn detailed a plan for the technology company to return more cash to shareholders, a move he has been pressing the company to make in recent weeks.

Carlyle Group slumped 7.6% after it missed analyst estimates for its earnings and revenue. The private-equity firm recorded lower performance fees and recorded an investment loss.

VeriFone Systems tumbled 43% after the electronic-payments company indicated 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.

Hormel Foods rose 1.3% after the company reported fiscal first-quarter earnings and revenue in line 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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