Stock traders pushed the pause button today, putting the market on hold while waiting for the Federal Reserve's decision Tuesday on interest rates.
Wall Street has been counting on Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan to raise rates by a quarter of a percentage point Tuesday and to keep ratcheting them up for the remainder of the year, but the Fed's course now looks far less predictable because of the slumping economy.
The betting is still that rates will be raised this week, but after Friday's report that the economy added just 32,000 new jobs on Friday, the conventional wisdom is that this may be the last increase before the presidential election.
Since Friday, many business economists have lowered their forecasts of how fast the economy will grow this quarter. A Bloomberg survey of economists showed forecasters now are predicting third quarter growth of 3.9 percent a year, down from a 4.2 growth rate forecast a month ago.
A key factor in the slowing growth is the escalating price of crude oil, which today on the New York Mercantile Exchange jumped to another new record: $44.97 a barrel.
Every day oil traders offer a new reason for why the price keeps going up. Today it was that threats of terrorist attacks on pipelines in Iraq have cut the amount of crude that is being loaded on tankers for export.
Record crude oil prices are already being seen at the gas pump, but soon consumers will be hit a second time: with higher home heating oil prices.
This is the time of year when many of the 8 million households who heat with oil have their tanks refilled for the winter. Prices are running 20 to 40 cents a gallon higher than last year. Nationwide, the average home burns about 1,000 gallons a winter, although it's generally less than that in the Washington area.
However much people burn, or whatever the fuel costs, higher prices still mean consumers have to squeeze more money out of family budgets that are already being pinched by higher gasoline prices.
Today's new record in crude oil prices once again sent the stocks of oil companies higher. Exxon Mobil, whose stock climbed 49 cents to $445.61 was the biggest gainer among stocks in the Dow Jones industrial average.
After showing small gains most of the day, the Dow slipped below breakeven in the final few minutes of trading and closed down two-thirds of a point at 9,814.66.
In a day of slow trading, the Nasdaq Stock Market composite index also produced a small loss, closing off 2 points at 1,774.64.
The Standard & Poor's 500 stock index gained a point to 1,065.22.