NEW YORK - Wall Street retreated sharply yesterday, slicing nearly 150 points off the Dow Jones industrial average after weak sales at many of the nation's major retailers heightened concerns about consumer spending.
The day's economic news, which included a disquieting trade-deficit figure, appeared to give investors the rationale they were looking for to cash in some of the market's recent gains.
Analysts have been saying that the surging stock market, which had pushed the Dow up more than 1,000 points since the beginning of March, was due for a pullback.
Companies including Wal-Mart Stores Inc., J.C. Penney Co. Inc., and Federated Department Stores Inc. said business fell in April, hurt by rising gasoline prices. Although many retail stocks had respectable gains yesterday, the reports raised worries that overall U.S. retail sales data due from the Commerce Department today also will disappoint and suggest that the economy is slower than previously thought.
The downturn on Wall Street yesterday followed a rise Wednesday that pushed the Dow to its 21st record close of the year. That came after the Federal Reserve left interest rates unchanged and reiterated that, while the economy has slowed, inflation remains the central bank's primary concern.
"What the Federal Reserve said . . . is that their principal focus is on inflation, and what retail sales said . . . is that their focus should be on the economy," said Hugh Johnson, chairman and chief investment officer of Johnson Illington Advisors L.L.C. "Things are not good out there in economy land."
The Dow fell 147.74, or 1.11 percent, to 13,215.13, giving back five sessions' worth of gains. It was the biggest point drop in the blue-chip index since a 242-point plunge on March 13.
Broader stock indicators also declined. The Standard & Poor's 500 index lost 21.11, or 1.40 percent, to 1,491.47, falling back below the 1,500 mark that it surpassed last week for the first time since September 2000.
The Nasdaq composite index dipped 42.60, or 1.65 percent, to 2,533.74.
Bonds rose after the weak economic data, with the yield on the 10-year Treasury note falling to 4.65 percent from 4.67 percent late Wednesday.
Besides the overall April retail sales figures coming today, the government will report on inflation at the wholesale level. Together, the reports could help decide whether Wall Street resumes its advance or embarks on a larger correction.
Some weak earnings reports added to the negative mood on Wall Street.
Whole Foods Market Inc. said slowing sales growth and rising costs hurt fiscal second-quarter profit. The natural- and organic-foods retailer's results missed Wall Street's expectations. Whole Foods dropped $4.65, or 10 percent, to $41.15.
Declining issues outnumbered advancers by a ratio of more than 3-1 on the New York Stock Exchange, where volume came to 1.54 billion shares, down from 1.56 billion Wednesday.
The Russell 2000 index of smaller companies fell 16.14, or 1.93 percent, from Wednesday's record close to 818.63.