Updated from 4:11 p.m. ESTThe steady exodus from tech stocks continued for a third straight day Wednesday, with the Nasdaq Composite closing at its worst level in more than a month. The broader market's slide also continued. The Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 32.95 points, or 0.3%, to 10,597.83, while the Nasdaq tumbled another 16.62 points, or 0.8%, to 2091.24. It was the first time the tech index has closed below the 2100 level since Nov. 30 and brings its three-day loss to 84 points. The S&P 500 fell 4.31 points, or 0.3%, to 1183.74. "We're at a point where we're overbought," said Robert Pavlik, a portfolio manager with Oaktree Asset Management. "People are a bit weary and cautious. Short-term investors are willing to take the profits where they can, while the rest of us need to ride this out. The overall cause is just momentum right now." Some of the worst selling Wednesday was in airline shares after Delta ( DAL) formalized a plan to cut most airfares by up to half, intensifying a price war among major carriers. Delta shares lost 7%, AMR's ( AMR) fell 9.6%, and Continental ( CAL) lost 8.1%. Volume on the NYSE was 1.74 billion shares, with decliners beating advancers by a ratio of 3 to 1. About 2.37 billion shares changed hands on the Nasdaq, with decliners outpacing advancers by the same ratio. "The market is still soft," said Jay Suskind, head of institutional equity trading at Ryan Beck & Co. "There's no buyer conviction. Too many people are on the sidelines waiting to see what happens." The 10-year Treasury note rose 3/32 in price to yield 4.28% after losing about two-thirds of a point in the previous session. Bond traders sold after the release of Federal Open Market Committee minutes Tuesday that showed some Fed governors are concerned that low interest rates are spurring speculation and possibly inflation. Speculation is apparent in "narrow credit spreads, a pickup in initial public offerings, an upturn in mergers-and-acquisition activity and anecdotal reports that speculative demands were becoming apparent in the markets for single-family homes and condominiums," the FOMC minutes read. The prospect of higher U.S. interest rates boosted the dollar's three-week highs against the yen and euro on Wednesday. Oil, which added nearly $2 on Tuesday, closed down 56 cents to $43.35 a barrel after the release of government data on energy inventories. Distillate supplies -- which include heating oil -- rose by a greater-than-expected 2 million barrels, while crude supplies fell by 3 million barrels in the most recent week. "None of the news so far has been overwhelming," said Edgar Peters, chief investment officer with Pan Agora. "There is no sign that inflation is actually picking up. There was an overreaction to the Fed minutes, and I think there is still some profit-taking. I think the market is severely undervalued." In economic news, the Institute for Supply Management's December index of service sector activity came in at 63.1, beating the 61.0 consensus forecast. The employment component came in at 54.9 compared with November's reading of 55.0.
Before the bell, chipmaker Xilinx ( XLNX) slashed revenue guidance for its December quarter for the second time in a month. It cited weakness in inventory turns, suggesting manufacturers that use its chips aren't clearing out backlog as quickly as Xilinx had hoped. The stock fell 90 cents, or 3.2%, to $27.54, weighing down the Philadelphia semiconductor index, which was in the red for the third straight session. The outlook overshadowed raised guidance at Siebel Systems ( SEBL). The software maker said Wednesday that it expects fourth-quarter earnings of 8 cents a share on revenue of $387 million to $390 million, above the Thomson First Call consensus of 7 cents a share on $347.3 million. Siebel lost 27 cents, or 2.7%, to $9.61 after holding gains for most of the trading session. A big factor in Tuesday's rout was negative Wall Street research that slammed tech stocks such as Amazon.com ( AMZN), Sun Microsystems ( SUNW) and Dell ( DELL). The tenor was milder Wednesday, with Merrill Lynch initiating Google ( GOOG) at neutral and UBS upgrading Genentech ( DNA). UBS said Genentech, which lost about 2% Tuesday on a Deutsche Bank downgrade, stands to benefit from progress in the biotech industry because of its patent portfolio. The brokerage also predicted better investor understanding on the company's drug pipeline and said a phase III trial of Avastin for lung cancer has a decent chance of success. UBS raised its price target to $67 from $54 and upgraded the stock to buy. The stock added $1.40, or 2.7%, to $53.15.
On Google, Merrill said the company's brand name remains strong and predicted a strong market for paid search, but said the shares have risen enough lately to leave them fair valued at current levels. The brokerage said Google trades below Yahoo! ( YHOO) on a price-to-earnings and price-to-earnings growth basis, but above it on a price-to-sales basis. The stock was off 99 cents, or 0.5%, to $193.51. Elsewhere, Morgan Stanley lowered Anheuser-Busch ( BUD) to equal weight from overwight on concerns about sluggish holiday volume. The brokerage warned that less-affluent consumers continue to be hamstrung, pressuring the beer market. The stock fell 53 cents, or 1%, to $49.95. Circuit City ( CC) posted a 5.8% drop in same-store sales in December, citing poor customer traffic compared with year-ago levels. The stock lost $1.25, or 8.34, to $13.71. Meanwhile, rival Best Buy ( BBY) gained 35 cents, or 0.6%, to $58.05. Bristol-Myers Squibb ( BMY) is planning to sell its consumer medicines business, which includes its Excedrin brand, for about $1 billion, according to media reports. Shares finished down 8 cents, or 0.3%, to $24.79. American International Group ( AIG) raised its quarterly dividend to 12.5 cents from 7.5 cents. AIG rose $1.10, or 1.7%, to $67.35. Overseas markets finished lower in the wake of Tuesday's selloff in New York. The FTSE 100 lost 0.8% to 4806 while Germany's Xetra DAX fell 0.7% to 4258. In Asia, Japan's Nikkei fell 0.7% overnight to 11,438 while Hong Kong's Hang Seng plunged 2% to 13,764.