US stocks head lower for a third day straight

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Photo - FILE - In this  Friday, March 7, 2014, file photo, trader Theodore Nelson, left, works on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. World stock markets sank Wednesday March 12, 2014 as recent falls in Chinese copper and iron prices added to jitters that the world's No. 2 economy is continuing to slow. (AP Photo/Richard Drew, File)
FILE - In this Friday, March 7, 2014, file photo, trader Theodore Nelson, left, works on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. World stock markets sank Wednesday March 12, 2014 as recent falls in Chinese copper and iron prices added to jitters that the world's No. 2 economy is continuing to slow. (AP Photo/Richard Drew, File)
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Concerns about slower economic growth in China and lingering tensions in Ukraine helped set the U.S. stock market on course for its third loss in a row Wednesday.

KEEPING SCORE: The Standard & Poor's 500 index fell four points, or 0.2 percent, to 1,863 as of 11:03 a.m. Eastern time. The Dow Jones industrial average shed 34 points, or 0.2 percent, to 16,316. The Nasdaq composite dipped three points, or 0.1 percent, to 4,304.

CHINA IN SPOTLIGHT: The catalyst for the latest market downturn was news this week that Chinese exports slumped in February. Since China is a big consumer of raw materials and energy, commodities such as copper and iron ore have dropped sharply. Copper has fallen to its lowest level since 2010.

"We've been seeing these periodic, occasional weak data points come out of China," said Randy Frederick, managing director of trading and derivatives at the Schwab Center for Financial Research. "And each time that happens when our markets are at all-time record highs, they're going to be very sensitive to any sort of negative news and there'll be days of profit-taking."

SECTOR VIEW: Eight of the 10 industry sectors in the S&P 500 index fell, with utilities and energy bucking the trend. Among the S&P 500 index's big decliners were insurer Progressive, which shed 62 cents, or 2.5 percent, to $23.90, and homebuilder PulteGroup, which slid 43 cents, or 2.2 percent, to $19.50 following a report that applications for home loans declined from a week ago.

DIGGING DEEP: Mining companies topped the list of gainers in the S&P 500 index in morning trading. Cliffs Natural Resources led the pack, rising 78 cents, or 4.4 percent, to $18.77. Newmont Mining added 42 cents, or 1.8 percent, to $24.77.

DRUG CONCERNS: Geron plunged $2.83, or 64.2 percent, to $1.58 in morning trading. Concerns about potential liver damage prompted U.S. federal regulators to order research suspended on its blood disorder drug.

EUROPE: Germany's DAX fell 1.5 percent, the CAC-40 in France fell 1.4 percent and Britain's FT-SE lost 1 percent.

ASIA: Earlier, Hong Kong's Hang Seng closed down 1.7 percent. China's Shanghai composite dropped 0.2 percent. South Korea's Kospi shed 1.6 percent. In Japan, the Nikkei 225 slid 2.6 percent. The Bank of Japan decided not to expand its already lavish monetary stimulus following a 2-day policy meeting.

BOND WATCH: The yield on the 10-year Treasury note fell to 2.73 percent from 2.77 percent. The yield, which affects rates on mortgages and other consumer loans, has been mostly rising this month from a low of 2.60 percent on March 3.

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