NEW YORK Stocks fluctuated Friday after a government report of a steep decline in new home sales stirred concerns that weakness in housing will continue to dog the economy.
The Commerce Department report that new home sales fell 9 percent from October to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 647,000 triggered renewed nervousness that consumers could become uneasy and tamp down their spending.
Stocks, which fell more than 1 percent Thursday following unwelcome economic readings and the assassination of Pakistani opposition leader Benazir Bhutto, fluctuated through the day Friday.
The Chicago purchasing managers' index had for a time offered some support to investor sentiment Friday after it showed a stronger-than-expected increase for December manufacturing activity in the Midwest.
But Wall Street appeared unable to hold onto its enthusiasm for too long. Investors are eager for any economic data that can help illuminate whether weakness in the housing and financial sectors is undercutting the overall economy, possibly leading to a recession.
Quincy Krosby, chief investment strategist at The Hartford, contends the news from growth in Midwest manufacturing to the weak housing report could have an outsize effect on stocks because of the session's light volume.
"What you have is a very thinly traded market so any news, whether it's good news or bad news, can skew the market actually quite dramatically one way or the other," she said.
In late afternoon trading, the Dow Jones industrial average fell 6.18, or 0.05 percent, to 13,353.43. The Dow was off its lows of the session, but earlier had risen more than 91 points before the arrival of the housing data.
Broader stock indicators were mixed. The Standard & Poor's 500 index rose 0.72, or 0.05 percent, to 1,477.09, and the Nasdaq composite index fell 5.03, or 0.19 percent, to 2,671.76.
Advancing issues narrowly outnumbered decliners on the New York Stock Exchange, where volume came to a light 808 million shares.
Bond prices rose sharply as investors looked for the assurances of U.S.-backed investments. The yield on the 10-year Treasury note, which moves opposite its price, fell to 4.07 percent from 4.19 percent late Thursday. The dollar was mixed against other major currencies, while gold prices rose.
Light, sweet crude fell 62 cents to settle at $96 per barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange. Rising prices in recent days have renewed talk of the psychological benchmark of $100. Oil saw its peak of $99.29 on Nov. 21.
The economic readings arriving Friday painted a mixed picture.
The pace of sales of new homes in November proved much weaker than economists had been expecting. Wall Street had predicted sales would drop about 1.8 percent to a pace of 715,000.
In a bright spot, the purchasing managers index, considered a precursor of the national Institute for Supply Management report being released Wednesday, rose to 56.6 from 52.9 in November. Economists, on average, had been expecting a showing of 52.0, according to Dow Jones Newswires.
In one sign of weakness, the Chicago PMI's December employment index fell to 49.0 from 54.4 in the prior month. Wall Street regards solid employment as the crucial underpinning of the economy's well-being because it feeds consumer spending, which accounts for more than two-thirds of U.S. economic activity.
Krosby said the turmoil in Pakistan could make investors leery of holding big positions heading into a holiday weekend.
While the markets are open Monday, many investors are likely to stay home ahead of the New Year's Day.
"I don't think that anyone at this stage wants to stake out a new position," she said.
In corporate news, a New York state regulator said Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway will receive a license to open a bond insurance business in the state. Berkshire Hathaway said Friday it agreed to buy NRG N.V., the reinsurance unit of ING Group said for about $435.7 million in cash.
Genesco Inc. jumped $5.38, or 16.3 percent, to $38.44 after a judge ruled The Finish Line Inc. cannot back out of its $1.5 billion purchase of Genesco. Finish Line fell 76 cents, or 25 percent, to $2.29.
The Russell 2000 index of smaller companies fell 1.15, or 0.15 percent, to 772.36.
Overseas, Japan's Nikkei stock average fell 1.65 percent. Britain's FTSE 100 fell 0.32 percent and France's CAC-40 ended essentially flat.