The stock market struggled for a foothold today, failing again to get a rally going in the face of a staggering plunge in consumer confidence.
The closely-watched Conference Board consumer confidence index recorded its biggest drop in 15 years--reflecting both the direct impact of two costly hurricanes, which called into question the nation's preparedness, and the secondary impact of the storms on energy prices.
The latest reports from the Gulf Coast warned that while oil refineries in the Houston area came through the latest storm relatively undamaged, facilities on the Texas-Louisiana border could be out of business for more than a month.
The wholesale price of gasoline jumped another 3 cents-a-gallon in response to the report, which presaged possible gas shortages in the next few weeks. Crude oil prices fell 75 cents-a-barrel to settle at $65.07 on the New York Mercantile Exchange.
For the third day in a row, the benchmark Standard & Poor's 500 stock index moved only a fraction of a point--though that minimal move was up--closing at 1,215.66.
The Nasdaq Stock Market composite index fell 5 points to 2,116.42. The Dow Jones industrial average gained almost 13 points to 10,456.21.
Stocks tried to rally late in the session as crude oil closed lower and Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan delivered a speech in Chicago that was interpreted to be encouraging about the economy. But while that run lifted all the indexes into positive territory for the day, it lost momentum in the final half hour of trading, giving back much of what it had gained.
It was difficult to see how investors could argue with the consumers interviewed by the Conference Board's pollsters.
With gas prices refusing to retreat and heating oil climbing just as fall begins, consumers are seeing uncontrollable increases in two of their top household budget categories. As a result, the confidence index plunged from 105.5 in August to 86.6. The drop of almost 19 points was the worst recorded by the index since 1990 and was much more than economists had expected.
New home sales also plunged--falling 9 percent last month, the Commerce Department reported. That slowdown contrasted with Monday's report on sales of existing homes, which continued to rise.