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Stocks Stumble Late to Finish Lower

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- U.S. stocks sold off ahead of the close to finish with marginal declines on Thursday, ending May on a fittingly disappointing note.

After a sour morning in the red, the major U.S. equity indices all battled back into positive territory late in the session following reports that the International Monetary Fund was prepping a contingency plan to rescue Spain if the country's financial situation continues to deteriorate.

But the gains proved unsustainable ahead of Friday's May jobs report. Thursday's raft of economic data did little to build confidence, showing evidence of a disappointing pace of job creation and slower economic growth than initially thought. The IMF also discounted the reports that it's planning a rescue loan for Spain; although stocks initially remained higher after that news.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average finished down 26 points, or 0.21%, at 12,393. The blue-chip index ranged between 12,489 and 12,316 during the volatile session, coming within 100 points of going negative for the year at the day's low.

The S&P 500 fell 3 points, or 0.2%, to close at 1310, while the Nasdaq lost 10 points, or 0.4%, to settle at 2827 after running as low as 2802 earlier in the session.

The afternoon roller-coaster ride for stocks never dampened demand for U.S. bonds though with the yield on the 10-year Treasury remaining near new record lows.

As for May, those investors that followed the old adage about selling out and going away are feeling pretty good right now. The Dow was down 6.2% for the month, while the S&P 500 fell 6.3% and the Nasdaq suffered a 7.2% decline. Year-to-date, the indices are still up 1.4%, 4.2% and 8.5% respectively.

"The retail investor ... a lot of people really don't trust this market, maybe they say the market is rigged or it's insider's game, so you just see a lot of people taking their money out of U.S. equities and putting them into bonds and looking for capital preservation instead of the risk-on trade," said Joe Bell, senior equity analyst at Schaeffer's Investment Research.

Bell's point is backed up by data released Thursday by the Investment Company Institute that found long-term mutual funds investing in U.S. equities saw outflows of $7.2 billion in the week ended May 23, bringing the total for the past five weeks to $19.5 billion. Bond funds have seen total inflows of $30.6 billion in the same span.

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