Stocks edge lower on worries about China, Greece

Associated Press + More

By PALLAVI GOGOI, Associated Press

NEW YORK (AP) — Two signs of trouble elsewhere in the world pushed U.S. stocks lower: slowing economic growth in China and a possible hitch in a deal to get Greece its bailout money.

The Dow Jones industrial average closed the day down 14.76 points to 12,962.81, or down 0.1 percent. The Dow closed above 13,000 last week for the first time since May 2008.

Monday was the 45th consecutive trading day without a loss of 100 points or more for the Dow. The last streak longer than that was 93 trading days from July 17 to Nov. 24, 2006.

Much of the pessimism in the market stemmed from China's premier, Wen Jiabao, lowering China's target rate for economic growth to 7.5 percent from 8 percent, where it has stood for years. That's a negative sign because growth in China has been a key factor shoring up the global economy since the financial crisis of 2008.

The news sent steel company stocks sharply lower. Half of the world's steel is consumed in China. AK Steel Holding Corp. lost 6 percent, while US Steel fell 4.7 percent.

The lower projection for Chinese growth also hurt stocks of U.S. materials companies that depend on China for profits. Caterpillar, which makes heavy equipment, fell 2.1 percent. Alcoa, the aluminum maker, fell 3.6 percent.

The Dow fell as much as 93 points in the morning before recouping some of that loss in the afternoon. Some market strategists said it was an overreaction to read too much into China's projection.

"China is still a driver of global growth, even at its slightly reduced pace," said Richard Cripps, chief market strategist at Stifel Nicolaus. "The growth rate is still far better than the U.S. and Europe."

The Standard & Poor's 500 dropped 5.30 points, or 0.4 percent, to 1,364.33.

The Nasdaq composite index fell 25.71 points, or 0.9 percent, to 2,950.48. The technology-heavy Nasdaq index fell slightly more than the other indexes as its star stocks Apple fell 2.2 percent and Google fell close to 1.1 percent.

Also weighing on the market were worries that not enough private investors will participate in a bond swap in Greece and accept bonds of lower face value and lower returns.

Trying to reassure world markets, a group representing a dozen banks, insurers and investment funds that hold Greek government bonds said they will participate in the swap by the Thursday night deadline.

Greece needs private investors to sign on before it gets a second international bailout worth $172 billion. Without the bailout, it could default on its debt later this month, an event many fear could shock the world financial system.

The stock market's losses were limited by some positive news from the U.S. economy. Service companies expanded in February at the fastest pace in a year, helped by a rise in orders and job growth.

The Institute for Supply Management said Monday that its index of non-manufacturing activity rose to 57.3, up from 56.8 in January and the third straight increase. Any reading above 50 indicates expansion.

In recent months, markets have been lifted by signs of improvement in the U.S. economy. U.S. stock indexes have been trading at their highest levels since before the collapse of the Lehman Brothers investment bank in 2008.

Among other stocks making big moves:

— Alpha Natural Resources, a coal producer, fell 6 percent after the price of natural gas fell close to 5 percent due to weak demand for gas in a mild winter.

— Archipelago Learning stock soared 22.7 percent after the online education company agreed to be bought by Plato Learning for $291 million in cash, helping boost the number of customers.

— US Airways Group fell 8.4 percent after the airline said passenger revenue growth slowed in February, indicating it is having a tough time raising fares and fees to offset climbing oil prices.

— American International Group rose close to 2 percent. AIG will raise $6 billion by selling part of its stake in an Asian insurance company and pay down some of its debt to the U.S. government from a bailout during the financial crisis. AIG owed $50 billion at the end of 2011.

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