NEW YORK - The final month of a stellar year for stocks began with a thud.
All three major indexes closed lower Monday, the first day of trading in December. Investors sold shares on signs that American shoppers - the seemingly inexhaustible fuel of global economic growth - may hold tight to their cash this holiday season.
Shoppers turned out in record numbers over the four-day Thanksgiving weekend, but plunked down less cash than they did last year. It was the first decline in Thanksgiving weekend spending since a retail trade group began tracking it in 2006.
Investors reacted by selling all types of retailer stocks, from department stores to specialty chains. J.C. Penney, Macy's and Target fell about 2 percent each. Urban Outfitters dropped nearly 4 percent.
"This holiday season is not going to be a gangbuster," said Lindsey Piegza, chief economist of Sterne Agee. "Retailers are bracing for declining activity from now to the beginning of the year."
One big exception to the retailer doldrums was eBay, which rose 1.6 percent thanks to signs of strong sales from its online auctions.
The Dow Jones industrial average has surged 22 percent this year and, if history holds, will add to that gain this month. The Dow has risen in December in three out of every four years going back to 1950, according to the Stock Trader's Almanac. The average gain: 1.7 percent.
On Monday, the Dow fell 77.64 points, or 0.48 percent, to 16,008.77. The Standard & Poor's 500 index dropped 4.91 points, or 0.27 percent, to 1,800.90. The Nasdaq composite fell 14.63 points, or 0.36 percent, to 4,045.26.
The government reported that developers boosted construction spending in October at the fastest pace in more than four years. A separate survey showed that manufacturing activity rose at its fastest pace in 21/2 years.
Joseph S. Tanious, global market strategist at JPMorgan, said he was encouraged by the reports and saw little reason to sell. But he said many people have made so much money in the market already that they want to play it safe and lock in gains.
"Investors are looking for reasons to sell," Tanious said. "But I think the markets will move higher between here and the year end."
Stock investors are waiting for a government report on jobs Friday for clues about whether the stimulus policy is working and when the Fed will ease off its bond purchases. Investors have sold on days when they feared a Fed pullback was imminent.