NEW YORK - Weaker-than-expected economic data and the market's persistent anxiety about a war with Iraq made for choppy trading Monday on Wall Street. Stocks waffled throughout the session before closing moderately lower.
Investors dabbled with bargain hunting, taking advantage of lower prices following weeks of heavy selling, but ultimately succumbed to uneasiness about war and the economy.
"Until we get this (war) under way, people are going to be sitting on their hands. I don't see any real reason for the market to rally," said Michael Murphy, head trader at Wachovia Securities in Baltimore.
The Dow Jones industrial average closed down 53.22, or 0.7 percent, at 7,837.86, according to preliminary calculations. Earlier in the session, the Dow rose as much as 90.38.
The broader market was also lower. The Nasdaq composite index fell 17.22, or 1.3 percent, to 1,320.30. The Standard & Poor's 500 index declined 6.34, or 0.8 percent, to 834.81.
Sell-offs and fizzled rallies have plagued the market for much of this year. February marked the third straight month of declines for most stocks with the Dow shedding 2 percent and the S&P losing 1.7 percent. The Nasdaq, however, managed to gain 1.3 percent.
"The Mideast confrontation is likely restraining stocks at this point. When that is concluded one way or the other, I think stocks will be unleashed to do much better," said A.C. Moore, chief investment strategist for Dunvegan Associates in Santa Barbara, Calif.
Monday's economic news was mostly discouraging, and accounted for much of the market's downbeat tone.
The Commerce Department reported that consumers worried about a possible war with Iraq trimmed their spending by 0.1 percent in January, missing economists' expectations for a 0.2 percent gain. The department said incomes grew by 0.3 percent, shy of the anticipated 0.4 percent increase.
In a third report, the Institute of Supply Management said U.S. manufacturing activity grew for a fourth straight month in February, but the pace of expansion slowed considerably and fell short of analysts' expectations.
There was some positive economic news, however, as the Commerce Department reported that construction spending jumped by 1.7 percent in January as builders bet that low mortgage rates would continue to support the housing market. The increase - the largest in a year - followed a strong 1.5 percent advance in December.
Among Monday's losers on Wall Street, Palm fell $1.28 to $10.32 after the maker of handheld electronic organizers cut its fiscal third-quarter revenue estimate and said it would take another charge against profits and was laying off 19 percent of its work force.
Ford declined 25 cents to $8.07 after reporting that February sales were flat.
Capital One Financial slid $2.72 to $28.25 following the resignation of chief financial officer David Willey, who had received a Wells notice indicating that the Securities and Exchange Commission staff plans to recommend that the SEC bring civil action against him for allegations of insider trading of the company's stock.
But FedEx rose 95 cents to $52.35 on an upgrade from J.P. Morgan.
Symantec climbed $1.53 to $42 after UBS Warburg and Soundview Technology each raised their ratings on the software maker.
Analysts said there was little reaction in the market to the weekend arrest of key al-Qaida operative Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who allegedly planned the Sept. 11 attacks, by Pakistani and CIA authorities.
Declining issues outnumbered advancers nearly 4 to 3 on the New York Stock Exchange. Trading volume was extremely light.
The Russell 2000 index, the barometer of smaller company stocks, fell 1.21, or 0.3 percent, to 359.31.
Overseas, Japan's Nikkei stock average finished Monday up 1.5 percent. In Europe, France's CAC-40 rose 0.3 percent, Britain's FTSE 100 advanced 0.8 percent and Germany's DAX index gained 0.1 percent.