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Stocks drift lower after jobs data

September 03, 2009|Tom Petruno

Suddenly, Wall Street is placing a premium on safety -- and a pox on risk-taking.

Some investors rushed into gold and silver Wednesday, the classic havens, as the stock market fell for a fourth straight session.

Near-term gold futures in New York shot up $21.90 to $976.60 an ounce, a three-month high.

Money also moved into Treasury securities, driving yields lower. The 10-year T-note yield fell to 3.29% from 3.37% on Tuesday, its lowest level in three months.

The turn of the calendar to September -- historically the stock market's worst month of the year -- seems to have been enough to spook many investors and traders who had been happy just coasting along with their portfolios through last week.

"We're seeing a bit of depletion of the risk appetite," said Bart Melek, global commodity strategist at BMO Capital Markets in Toronto.

Or maybe more than a bit. Wall Street this week is ignoring upbeat economic data that in July and August would have been grounds for another rally in stocks.

The Dow Jones industrial average slumped nearly 186 points Tuesday despite a report showing that the U.S. manufacturing sector expanded in August for the first time since January 2008.

Minutes released Wednesday of the Federal Reserve's Aug. 11-12 meeting said that "incoming data and anecdotal evidence had strengthened [policymakers'] confidence that the downturn in economic activity was ending and that growth was likely to resume in the second half of the year."

But the stock market couldn't get any traction all day, and slid in the final minutes of trading. The Dow ended down 29.93 points, or 0.3%, at 9,280.67. It's off 3.1% from its summer high reached last Thursday -- not much, in the scheme of things, but the biggest setback since the midsummer rally began July 13.

There is the usual heightened nervousness about the next big economic report: the government's report on August employment, due out Friday. Economists' consensus estimate is for a net loss of 230,000 jobs, according to a Bloomberg News survey.

A bigger-than-expected decline in jobs could fuel more doubts about the economy when Wall Street returns to work in force after the Labor Day holiday.

Tom di Galoma, head of U.S. rates trading at Guggenheim Capital Markets in New York, said he heard that the march back into Treasuries over the last two weeks reflects hedging by some big portfolio managers "who are anticipating a large drop in stocks in September."

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tom.petruno@latimes.com

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