NEW YORK Disappointing reports about the U.S. economy helped push the stock market lower on Friday.
Concerns that the Federal Reserve could announce plans to cut back its stimulus program next week also weighed on the mood.
Americans' confidence in the economy weakened in June and was lower than economists had estimated, according to the Thomson Reuters/University of Michigan survey out Friday. Another report said factories weren't as busy as expected.
The International Monetary Fund, a global lender, offered no help. The IMF said Friday that U.S. government spending cuts that kicked in March 1 were "ill-designed" and slowed the economy down.
"There was just no good news today," said Cam Albright, a director at Wilmington Trust Investment Advisors in Wilmington, Del. Add the handful of economic reports out Friday to the anxiety over the Fed's stimulus program, ``and you have the recipe for a soft market to finish the week,'' he said.
Market indexes flitted from slight gains to losses in morning trading, a contrast to the sudden lurches in previous days. All three major indexes lost 1 percent or more this week.
Trading has been volatile since late May as traders try to figure out when the Fed will dial back its aggressive support for the U.S. economy. This week was no different: The Dow slumped a total of 243 points on Tuesday and Wednesday, then jumped 180 points Thursday. The blue-chip average has made moves of 100 points or more in seven of the last 10 trading days.
The Fed buys $85 billion in bonds every month as part of a campaign to keep interest rates extremely low. The aim is to encourage borrowing, spending and investing. Some investors worry that long-term interest rates could spike when the Fed pulls back, raising borrowing costs and threatening the economic recovery. Higher yields for government bonds have already started pushing mortgage rates up.
Policymakers at the Fed will start a two-day meeting Tuesday to discuss the central bank's next steps. After the meeting wraps up, the bank will release its policy statement, and Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke will hold another press conference.
Scott King, senior fiduciary investment adviser at Unified Trust in Lexington, Ky., said that investors in recent weeks have been influenced more by wondering about what the Fed might do than by the underlying economy.
"You have a number of Fed governors saying the opposite to what Bernanke is saying," King said. "And that's made the markets more jittery."
King said investors were disappointed Friday by the drop in consumer confidence. He described the economy as "plodding along."
"Wage growth continues to be pretty meager, and unemployment continues to be lackluster," King said.
Banks led nine of the 10 industry groups in the S&P 500 lower. Utilities made slight gains. Investors tend to favor these safety plays when they want stable companies that pay steady dividends.
The S&P 500 hit a record high of 1,669 on May 21. The next day, Fed officials said they would consider pulling back on their stimulus program once the economy looks healthy enough. The S&P 500 has lost 2 percent since.
In other Friday trading, the Nasdaq composite index (COMP) lost 21.81 points, or 0.6 percent, to 3,423.56.
The price of oil rose $1.16 to close at $97.85 a barrel, near its highest level of the year, as traders reacted to news that the U.S. would provide weapons to rebel forces in Syria.
Gold rose $9.80, or 0.7 percent, to $1,387.60 an ounce.
In the market for U.S. government bonds, the yield on the benchmark 10-year Treasury note dipped to 2.13 percent from 2.15 percent late Thursday. The yield reached a 14-month high of 2.29 percent on Tuesday. Expectations that the Fed will pare its bond buying have helped drive the yield up from 1.63 percent on May 3, when it was at its lowest level this year.
Among stocks making big moves:
Casey's General Stores (CASY) fell $2.60, or 4 percent, to $60.69. The Iowa-based convenience store reported earnings late Thursday that fell short of what financial analysts had expected.
Myriad Genetics (MYGN) sank $4.42, or 14 percent, to $27.59. The decline came a day after the Supreme Court gave the diagnostic test maker a partial victory in a patent battle.
Restoration Hardware (RH) jumped $9.51, or 16 percent, to $68.47. The high-end home products chain raised its forecast for full-year earnings late Thursday and announced plans to start two new businesses, RH Kitchen and Tableware and RH Antiquities, next year.