U.S. Stocks Fall Sharply Amid Rate Fears

NEW YORK (MarketWatch) -- U.S. stocks fell sharply Wednesday, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average losing over 100 points, as news that unit labor costs jumped in the first quarter fueled concerns over inflation, interest rates and rising bond yields, further sapping enthusiasm in the market.

"We've had a rough couple of days, with bond yields approaching 5%," said Jay Suskind, director of trading at Ryan, Beck & Co. "This market has been strong, so it's an excuse to take money off the table, but this move is clearly interest-rate driven."

The Dow industrials were down 91 points to 13,503, after earlier losing over 100 points to 13,489.

Of the Dow's 30 components, 26 retreated led by Boeing Co, , Dupont , IBM Home Depot Inc. , and IBM and United Technologies .

Concerns about European stocks also weighed on the U.S. market, after Morgan Stanley issued "a full-house sell signal".

The S&P 500 index fell 10.1 points to 1,520, while the Nasdaq Composite lost 20 points to 2,590.

Bucking the lower trend, TD Ameritrade gained 3% after two hedge funds with a stake in the brokerage suggested it find a merger partner. Charles Schwab & Co. said it's not interested in a merger.

Rising rates

Stocks futures extended losses before the open following a Labor Department report showing unit labor costs - a key gauge of inflationary pressures - were revised higher to 1.8% annualized from 0.6% previously in the first quarter.

Economists surveyed by MarketWatch expected costs to be revised to 1.7%.

"This upward unit labor cost tilt is certainly a troublesome development at the Fed," said Mike Englund, chief economist at Action Economics.

The market was already under pressure before the data, with investors continuing to re-assess the valuations of share prices in light of rising bond yields, which offer a risk-free alternative to stocks.

"If we continue to get really strong economic numbers and bearish inflationary numbers along with a hawkish Fed, and if we see a big correction overseas, then we could see a correction here," said Ryan, Beck & Co's Suskind.

With rising yields attracting buyers, bond prices actually rose stlightly, sending yields lower, after the data. The benchmark 10-year Treasury bond was up 3/32 at 96 8/32, while its yield stood at 4.98%.

On Tuesday, the Dow industrials fell 80 points, after data showing improving sentiment in the service sector and remarks from Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke who continued to highlight the Fed's concerns over inflation.

U.S. government bonds are also under pressure from rising yields globally. The European Central Bank, as expected, hiked its key rate to 4% from 3.75%.

Sell, sell, sell Europe?

Adding pressure to European stocks and the U.S. market, Morgan Stanley issued a "full house sell signal" citing three of its leading indicators: fundamentals, which include bond yields, as well as valuation and risk.

"Such a full house sell signal across these three indicators is rare, and has occurred only five times since 1980," said Morgan Stanley analyst Teun Draaisma in a report.

The dollar still edged higher against the euro, as investors had widely anticipated the ECB's decision. The U.S. currency, meanwhile, was down against the yen.

Oil futures were slightly higher ahead of a weekly report on energy inventories. A barrel was recently up 20 cents at $65.81.

Moving stocks

Whole Foods Market fell 3.2% after the Federal Trade Commission decided to file a lawsuit to block its merger with Wild Oats . Morgan Stanley cut Whole Foods rating to equal-weight from overweight on the decision.

Separately, Goldman Sachs downgraded Borders to sell from neutral, saying the FTC decision makes a merger with Barnes & Nobles less likely.

Guess gained 5.6% after the Los Angeles retailer lifted its annual earnings outlook.
GlaxoSmithKline fell 1.8% as a hearing in Congress debates the Food and Drug Administration's role in approving its diabetes drug Avandia.

Glaxo put out its own study on Tuesday defending the drug's cardiovascular safety, after a separate study suggested the drug increases heart attack risk.

By Nick Godt