Stocks slipped in early trading Thursday as upbeat earnings failed to offset uncertainty still swirling around government involvement in the market and disappointing jobless and durable goods orders reports.
Overseas markets rose on hopes the U.S. economy will continue to strengthen.
Politics, not the economy, had been dictating trading over the past week. Concerns about President Barack Obama's plan to overhaul banking regulation and restrict trading at large financial institutions spooked the market. The possibility Federal Reserve Board chairman Ben Bernanke wouldn't be confirmed for a second term had investors on edge, though those worries have subsided. Stocks have declined five of the past eight days.
During his State of the Union address Wednesday night, Obama avoided talking about the banking overhaul plan. Uncertainty over details of how that plan might be enacted and how strong trading restrictions would be had helped push the market to its worst three-day stretch since stocks bottomed last March.
Focus on the economy is creeping back to the forefront. The Fed said Wednesday afternoon it would keep interest rates at historic lows and the economy was showing signs of improvement. That helped stocks rally late in the day.
Investors welcomed a new round of earnings Thursday that showed signs of a strengthening economy. However, the Labor Department said weekly jobless claims fell by less than expected last week and the Commerce Department reported durable goods orders didn't rise as fast as anticipated last month, providing a reminder the economic recovery is likely to be slow.
In early morning trading, the Dow Jones industrial average fell 42.77, or 0.4 percent, to 10,193.39. The Standard & Poor's 500 index fell 2.58, or 0.2 percent, to 1,094.92, while the Nasdaq composite index fell 16.28, or 0.7 percent, to 2,205.13.
Ford Motor Co. said it recorded a profit in 2009 — its first annual profit in four years. The auto maker, which avoided bankruptcy and government bailout money, said it expects to again be profitable in 2010.
Consumer products makers Colgate-Palmolive and Procter & Gamble Co. both said quarterly sales improved as consumers continue to spend on necessary goods. The two reports topped analysts' expectations.
Pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly & Co. recorded a profit during the fourth quarter as sales of its two top-selling drugs rose sharply.
AT&T's profit was in line with expectations, though the telecommunications company added a near-record 2.7 million wireless customers.
New requests for unemployment benefits fell modestly, dropping to 470,000 last week. Economists polled by Thomson Reuters had been expecting a bigger drop to 450,000 new unemployment filings.
Orders to U.S. factories for big-ticket manufactured goods rose less than expected in December, increasing just 0.3 percent. Economists had been expecting a 2 percent increase in orders.
For all of 2009, durable goods orders — items expected to last at least three years — tumbled 20.2 percent. It was the largest drop on records that go back to 1992.