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Stocks Slide as 'Fiscal Cliff' Pessimism Mounts

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Major U.S. stock averages slid Thursday as more signs of discord in Washington over the "fiscal cliff" talks overshadowed a handful of better-than-expected economic releases.

House Speaker John Boehner, speaking on live television, once again broadcast the criticism among Republicans of President Barack Obama's most recent budget plans as anything but balanced.

He is "far more focused on tax hikes than spending cuts," said Boehner, who added the president is "just not serious" about cutting spending.

"Spending is the problem in Washington ... the president wants to pretend spending isn't a problem. That's why we don't have an agreement," Boehner said.

The house speaker warned that the economy is at risk of being walked "right up to a fiscal cliff," potentially putting the job market in jeopardy.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 75 points, or 0.56%, to 13,171. The blue-chip index began the session up about 8.5% in 2012.

Breadth was negative, with losers overtaking winners 25 to five. The steep blue-chip decliners were Merck (MRK), Disney (DIS), Boeing (BA) and UnitedHealth (UNH).

Advancers included Caterpillar (CAT), Wal-Mart (WMT) and American Express (AXP).

The S&P 500 lost 9 points, or 0.63%, to 1,419. The Nasdaq sank 22 points, or 0.72%, to 2,992.

At final check, Google (GOOG) shares ticked up 0.74% and Apple (AAPL) shares slid 1.7%.

Google's Maps app is again available on Apple's iPhone. The online mapping system returned late Wednesday, nearly three months after Apple replaced Google Maps with its own navigation tool but with disastrous results.

Volumes totaled 3.32 billion shares on the Big Board and 1.83 billion on the Nasdaq. Decliners were edging advancers by nearly a 2.3-to-1 ratio on the New York Stock Exchange and about 1.7-to-1 on the Nasdaq.

The large majority of sectors in the broader market were in the red, weighed down most heavily by energy, consumer cyclicals, health care and utilities. Only the transportation sector was in the green.

Averting the cliff before Christmas will likely help the S&P 500 to rally to 1,500 by year-end or early January, provided that the 2013 fiscal drag does not exceed 1.5% of gross domestic product, according to David Bianco, U.S. equity strategist at Deutsche Bank.

"However, further upside will be sensitive to the legislation's details," he noted. Bianco said that if top income tax bracket rate hikes were to be curbed from what's scheduled, the S&P 500 could reach 1,550 by the end of 2013, and if the new top dividend tax rate was at 25% or less, the benchmark index could reach 1,600 by then.

"The lesser the tax hikes, the more tolerant investors are likely to be of any weak macro data in early 2013," Bianco said.

Julia Coronado, chief economist for North America at BNP Paribas, said that "unfortunately, we need to rely on our elected officials to chart a course toward greater clarity about the future of the U.S. economy, and a healthier balance between the government and business sectors."

Major U.S. stock averages reversed gains in the final hour of trading on Wednesday as Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke answered reporters' questions after the central bank fulfilled the wishes of the markets for a fresh round of stimulus.

The Labor Department reported Thursday that initial jobless claims for the week ended Dec. 8 were 343,000, down 29,000 from the previous week's upwardly revised figure of 372,000.

"Initial claims showed substantial improvement in the past week," said Gennadiy Goldberg, a U.S. strategist at TD Securities.

The four-week moving average was 381,500, a decrease of 27,000 from the preceding week's average of 408,500.

Continuing claims for the week ended Dec. 1 were 3.198 million, a decrease of 23,000 from the prior week's upwardly revised level of 3.221 million.

On average, economists were expecting jobless claims to come in at 370,000 and continuing claims of 3.21 million.

The Census Bureau reported that retail sales increased 0.3% in November after falling 0.3% in October. Economists were expecting a 0.5% increase.

Excluding the auto component, sales remained flat like in October, as expected.

"Only three of 13 sectors saw sales decline in November," noted Andrew Wilkinson, chief economic strategist at Miller Tabak. "The most recent data was boosted by gains within nonstore, building materials and electronics."

The Bureau of Labor Statistics said Thursday that producer prices fell 0.8% in November after declining 0.2% in October; core data rose 0.1% after being down 0.2% the previous month. Economists, on average, expected producer prices to fall 0.5% in November and for core data to rise 0.2%.

The Census Bureau also said that business inventories rose 0.4% in October after increasing 0.7% in September. A 0.4% rise was expected by economists.

The FTSE 100 in London closed down 0.27% and the DAX in Germany fell 0.43% as the European markets assessed the latest comments from the Fed.

On Thursday, European Union finance ministers reached a banking union agreement and have given the green light on the payment of €49 billion to Greece.

Gold for February delivery plunged $21.10 to settle at $1,696.80 an ounce at the Comex division of the New York Mercantile Exchange, while January crude oil contracts closed down 88 cents at $85.89 a barrel.

The benchmark 10-year Treasury slid 7/32 to push the yield up to 1.729%. The dollar was up 0.04%, according to the U.S. dollar index.

In corporate news, Sprint (S) is looking to purchase the rest of Clearwire ( CLWR ) for $2.1 billion to attain complete ownership of the company's wireless spectrum.

Sprint shares fell 0.35%, while Clearwire shares popped 14.9%.

Best Buy (BBY - Get Report) shares jumped 15.9% Thursday amid reports that the electronic retailer's founder, Richard Schulze, plans to announce a formal $5 billion to $6 billion takeover offer this week for the company.

CVS Caremark (CVS - Get Report) shares rose 2% after the pharmacy health-care provider said it was anticipating 2013 profit growth to top growth this year, and announced a dividend hike of 38%.

Ciena (CIEN) posted a wider-than-expected fourth-quarter loss of 7 cents a share, a penny wider than Wall Street expectations, as the network specialist and its competitors continue to be hurt by spending reductions and postponed purchases by telecom-service providers. Shares gained 1.5%.

Knight Capital Group (KCG) expects to make a decision on its future ownership by early next week, The Wall Street Journal reported, citing people familiar with the matter. Shares ticked up 1.9%.

Rival trading firms Getco and Virtu Financial, which both have submitted bids to buy the market-maker, are fine-tuning their takeover proposals for Knight, the Journal said. Final offers are expected to be handed to Knight's board and investors by the end of this week, the people told the newspaper.

Adobe Systems (ADBE), the maker of Photoshop and other software for digital artists, is expected by analysts Thursday to post fourth-quarter earnings of 57 cents, down from 67 cents a year earlier. Shares were down 1.2% on Thursday.

PhotoMedex (PHMD) shares added 6.2% after the global skin-health solutions company hiked its fourth-quarter sales growth guidance.

Boston Beer (SAM - Get Report) shares surged 15.5% after the company increased its full-year profit guidance thanks to more robust shipments.

-- Written by Andrea Tse and Joe Deaux in New York.



>To contact the writer of this article, click here: Andrea Tse.

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