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The Dow continued its retreat from Tuesday when it reached 13,000 on an intraday basis for the first time since May 2008. Corporate earnings season is also drawing to an end, removing some potential headline momentum from the market.
Following a tepid welcome for news of a €130 billion bailout package for Greece Tuesday, a drop in a reading on European manufacturing activity underscored the region's longer term challenge of how to pull itself out of what is likely to be years of slow growth. According to Markit Economics, eurozone business activity dipped to a level of 49.7 in February from 50.4 in January. Analysts had expected the reading to remain just above 50 to indicate economic expansion, not contraction.
The Markit Economics' purchasing managers index measuring China's manufacturing activity came in at 49.7 in February, rising marginally from 48.8 in January.
"Growth remains on track of slowdown, despite the marginal improvement in
led by quickened production after the Chinese New Year," said Hongbin Qu, chief economist at HSBC. "With a meaningful rebound of domestic demand not in sight, external weakness is starting to bite, adding more downside risks to growth."
In U.S. economic news, existing-home sales rose to their highest rate in January since May 2010. Last month's sales increased 4.3% to an annual rate of 4.57 million, according to the National Association of Realtors (NAR). Investors welcomed the report as a sign of improvement in the housing market, even though economists were looking for an annual rate of 4.65 million. December's pace was downwardly revised to 4.38 million from 4.61 million.
"The uptrend in home sales is in line with all of the underlying fundamentals -- pent-up household formation, record-low mortgage interest rates, bargain home prices, sustained job creation and rising rents," noted Lawrence Yun, chief economist at the NAR. "Foreclosure sales are moving swiftly with ready home buyers and investors competing in nearly all markets."
With no major developments coming out of Greece on Wednesday, investors remained cautious on the country's ability to implement the deal struck earlier this week. Before the country gets bailout money, it needs to complete a swap of private debt holdings by March 10. Fitch Ratings, which downgraded Greece's long-term foreign and local currency issuer default ratings to C from CCC on Wednesday, has said it may slash the country's rating again to "restricted default" once the country's private creditors accept the bond swap.
Germany's DAX finished lower by 0.93% while London's FTSE slid 0.2%. Japan's Nikkei Average settled up 0.96% and Hong Kong's Hang Seng finished up 0.33%.
In corporate news, PC maker
Dell's(DELL - Get Report) fiscal fourth-quarter earnings
came in below analysts' expectations despite a solid revenue performance.
Dell reported non-GAAP earnings of $913 million, or 51 cents a share, on revenue of $16.03 billion for the quarter ended Feb. 3. Analysts were expecting earnings of 52 cents a share on revenue of $15.96 billion.
For the current fiscal year, the company expects non-GAAP earnings of more than the $2.13 a share it earned last year. Wall Street expects a profit of $2.05 a share in the fiscal year ending in January 2013. Dell also said it expects a sequential decline in revenue of 7% in its fiscal first quarter ending in April.
Shares tumbled 5.8% to $17.15.
Toll Brothers(TOL - Get Report) posted a fiscal first-quarter loss of $2.8 million, or 2 cents a share, a swing from year-earlier net income of $3.4 million, or 2 cents. Revenue fell to $322 million from $334.1 million a year earlier. Analysts expected Toll to earn 2 cents a share on revenue of $360.8 million. Shares slid 5.2% to $22.48.
Citigroup(C - Get Report) faces a potential multibillion dollar write-down on its minority investment in the Morgan Stanley Smith Barney brokerage,
The Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday. Negotiations over how much Morgan Stanley will pay to buy Citigroup out of the joint venture formed in 2009 will begin in the spring, according to the report. Citigroup's stake in the business is estimated at $10 billion in equity. Shares fell 3% to $32.36.
Brocade Communications(BRCD - Get Report), the maker of communications networking equipment, posted an adjusted first-quarter profit of $93 million, or 20 cents a share, on revenue of $561 million. Analysts were expecting earnings of 13 cents a share on revenue of $542.2 million. Shares gained 2.6% to $5.64.
Apple(AAPL - Get Report) will hold a shareholder meeting on Thursday. The meeting comes as Apple has faced some criticism over worker conditions at Foxconn, its contractor in China.
The company also may have to address what it plans to do with its cash pile of nearly $98 billion. Some analysts speculate that Apple will pay a "special dividend." Investors are also awaiting any hints on product announcements, including the highly anticipated iPhone5, iPad3 and Apple TV. Shares have pulled back recently after hitting an all-time high of $526.29.
Johnson & Johnson's(JNJ - Get Report) Bill Weldon is stepping down as the health care giant's CEO. He will be replaced by Alex Gorsky, vice chairman and head of the company's largest business by revenue, on April 26, the day of J&J's annual shareholder's meeting. Shares slipped 0.1% to $65.
April oil futures climbed to a nine-month high, up 3 cents to $106.28 a barrel. While weak manufacturing reads in China and Europe put a damper on the demand outlook, ongoing tensions between oil exporter Iran and the West helped buoy prices.
In other commodities, April gold futures climbed to its highest level so far this year of $1771.30 an ounce. Slight gains triggered automatic buying the last hour of trading.
The dollar index was up 0.1% at $79.19. The benchmark 10-year Treasury was rising 14/32, lowering the yield to 2.016%.
Written by Chao Deng and Andrea Tse in New York.