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Stocks turn lower as U.S. budget deadline nears

NEW YORK The market sent a gloomy message Thursday: The economy is still far from repaired, the "fiscal cliff" negotiations far from sealed.

Jobless aid applications drop to 5-year low
New home sales jump to highest in 2 1/2 years
Consumer confidence falls on "fiscal cliff" fears

Stocks were down for the fourth day in a row, falling decisively after a report that consumer confidence has plunged to its lowest level since August.

"An unpleasant surprise," was how Hugh Johnson, chairman and chief investment officer of Hugh Johnson Advisors in Albany, N.Y., described the numbers. "People are worried."

It was an uneasy sentiment already made obvious this week: The holiday shopping season so far has been the weakest since the financial crisis of 2008.

Washington's stagnating budget negotiations compounded the market's pessimism. Automatic tax increases and government spending cuts kick in next week if Republicans and Democrats can't reach a budget agreement by Monday night.

On Thursday, both sides demanded that the other take the initiative in compromising. President Barack Obama called the Democratic and Republican leaders of the House and Senate to talk about the negotiations.

Until recently, investors were treating the "fiscal cliff" with a measure of nonchalance. Stocks rose more or less steadily from mid-November until late last week.

But now, with the "fiscal cliff" deadline nearing and no deal in sight, more investors are getting unnerved by the uncertainty.

"This is a matter of a few personalities; it isn't something where you can analyze spreadsheets to figure out what's going on," said David Kelly, chief global strategist at JPMorgan Funds. "There are very few investors on one side or the other who have wanted to make a strong bet on this one."

Thursday was the market's fourth straight down day. The fact that the stock market usually rises during the last few days of the year only makes the pattern more disquieting.

To be sure, plenty of traders think the "fiscal cliff" is overhyped. Even if the government misses the Monday deadline, the higher taxes and lower government spending would have a gradual effect, and Congress could always repeal them.

That doesn't mean they're not worried about the economy in general.

"I'm not particularly concerned about the fiscal cliff," said Derrick Irwin, portfolio manager for Wells Fargo Advantage Funds. "The economy is going to do what the economy is going to do - it just doesn't look too good."

The major U.S. stock indexes wavered between small gains and losses in early trading. They stayed in the red after the consumer confidence numbers were released, and after Harry Reid, a Democrat and the Senate Majority Leader, said it appeared the government would miss the Dec. 31 deadline.

All three major indexes were down by more than 1 percent in the afternoon. The Dow Jones industrial average fell 138 points to 12,977. The Standard & Poor's 500 was down 15 points to 1,405, and the Nasdaq composite index fell 32 points to 2,959.

Trading volume was light, with many investors still on Christmas vacation. That also made the market more volatile. When fewer shares are changing hands, the market can move on relatively small trades.

There were scattered signs that the U.S. economy might be improving, but investors were underwhelmed. The government reported that unemployment claims fell and sales of new homes rose.

"We've got lots of numbers out, and nobody's even talking about or thinking about the numbers," Johnson said. People can't take too much comfort in those reports, he said, when they "are worried about their jobs and worried about their incomes."

Among stocks making big moves:

-Chipmaker Marvell Technology Group dropped more than 4 percent, falling 34 cents to $7.06, after the company lost a patent case brought by Carnegie Mellon University. Marvell said it would fight the $1.2 billion ruling.

-JCPenney was down more than 7 percent, losing $1.48 to $19.27, after rising more than 4 percent the day before. The stock has been volatile as the company tries to remake its image to attract younger shoppers.

-Steinway Musical Instruments fell more than 5 percent, down $1.28 to $21.24, after announcing that it doesn't plan to seek buyers.

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