Stocks closed sharply lower Thursday as traders worried about an escalation of tensions between Russia and the West after the downing of a passenger plane in eastern Ukraine. | Ap file photo
Updated: July 17, 2014 4:20PM
The downing of a passenger plane flying over Ukraine rattled U.S. financial markets Thursday, deepening a slide set off by a batch of disappointing company earnings and a weak home construction report.
All three major stock indexes ended lower for the first time in a week, but remained near record highs and positive for the year.
Ukrainian officials said a Malaysia Airlines passenger plane carrying 295 people was shot down, although both the government and pro-Russia separatists fighting in the region denied responsibility. The situation raised concerns of wider geopolitical instability in the region and an escalation of tensions between Russia and the West.
Investors responded by seeking refuge in U.S. government bonds. The yield on the 10-year Treasury note fell to 2.46 percent, the lowest level since May. Gold and oil prices rose.
SanDisk, AutoNation, Yum Brands and Mattel were among the biggest decliners after reporting earnings or profit forecasts that disappointed investors. Airline and homebuilder stocks also fell sharply.
“What happened with the plane today and things swirling around with what may have actually happened with the plane caused a bit of a sell-off,” said JJ Kinahan, chief strategist at TD Ameritrade. “The geopolitical risk is always the first one that people look for because it’s the one that changes the fastest. The market always hates uncertainty.”
The major stock indexes were down in premarket trading as investors pored through the latest company earnings and other news.
A pair of government reports pointed to an uneven U.S. recovery. The number of people seeking U.S. unemployment benefits fell last week, but home construction fell in June to the slowest pace in nine months, clouding the outlook for the housing recovery.
Homebuilders slumped on the news. M/I Homes led the decline, tumbling $1.38, or 5.8 percent, to $22.37.
“The housing starts numbers were weak, but housing has been incredibly volatile,” said Randy Frederick, managing director of trading and derivatives at the Schwab Center for Financial Research. “They were definitely disappointing.”
Stocks opened lower, but then drifted between small gains and losses, with the Dow inching briefly into positive territory.
That budding comeback stalled at midmorning when news broke of the downed plane.
The CBOE Volatility Index, also known as the “VIX,” jumped 33 percent Thursday, reflecting investors’ uneasiness. The index reflects investors’ expectations of future volatility in the stock market.
All told, the Standard & Poor’s 500 index fell 23.45 points, or 1.2 percent, to 1,958.12. The index remains near its most recent all-time high of 1,985.44 set July 3.
The Dow slid 161.39 points, or 0.9 percent, to 16,976.81.
The Nasdaq composite sank 62.52 points, or 1.4 percent, to 4,363.45.
The yield on the 10-year Treasury note fell to 2.46 percent from 2.53 percent late Wednesday. Benchmark U.S. crude oil for August delivery jumped $1.99 to $103.19 in New York. Gold surged $17.10 to $1,316.90 an ounce.
All 10 sectors in the S&P 500 declined, led by energy stocks.
SanDisk fell the most of the 500 stocks in the index, losing 13.6 percent after the flash memory maker issued a disappointing outlook. The stock fell $14.62 to $93.21.
Sherwin-Williams bucked the trend, ending up as the biggest gainer in the index. It rose $9.22, or 4.6 percent, to $210.95.
Despite Thursday’s decline, stocks remain near record territory.
The Dow set a record high close on Wednesday, its second this month, and the S&P 500 is hovering near its all-time high. That may have encouraged investors to sell some of their stock holdings Thursday, said Darrell Cronk, deputy chief investment officer for Wells Fargo Private Bank.
“It’s more of some position-squaring and a little bit of profit-taking over the next couple of days as we continue to set new highs,” Cronk said.
Even with growing geopolitical uncertainty, the market remained focused on company earnings, which have been mostly favorable so far.
On Thursday, however, many companies fell short.
AutoNation’s second-quarter earnings rose 12 percent, but fell short of Wall Street’s expectations. The stock of the nation’s largest auto dealership chain fell $5.01, or 8 percent, to $55.82.
Mattel fell $2.57, or 7 percent, to $36.46 after the toy maker reported that its income plunged 61 percent in the second quarter, weighed down by costs tied to its acquisition of Mega Brands.
Yum Brands shares slid $5.70, or 7 percent, to $77.01 after the operator of Taco Bell, Pizza hut and KFC reported higher second-quarter earnings but also sluggish sales in the U.S. at Pizza Hut and KFC chains.