Retail Sales Drop, Stocks Tread Water

Consumers put away their cash and credit cards again in August, sending retail sales sharply lower and further vexing anyone trying to get a solid read on the direction of the economy.

In a report released Tuesday, the Commerce Department said retail sales fell 0.3 percent in August.

That came in sharp contrast to the July data, which showed a 0.8 percent gain over the previous month.

The agency said a decline in auto sales contributed to the shortfall.

With car sales factored out, sales were up slightly.

Wall Street Numbers

The retail number had little impact on Wall Street, where stocks traded in a narrow band throughout the day and finished largely unchanged.

The Dow gained just 3.40 points to close at 10,318.16, the Nasdaq rose 5.02 points to 1,915.40 and the S&P 500 climbed 2.51 points to finish at 1,128.33.

Ivan Threatens

Crude oil was another factor likely weighing on the minds of investors.

The impact of a pledge by the majority of OPEC nations to increase oil output to meet rising demand was far outweighed by short-term concerns stirred up by the approach of Hurricane Ivan.

Oil — and natural gas — production platforms located offshore in the Gulf of Mexico were being slowly shut down starting over the weekend, with personnel airlifted to safety ahead of Ivan.

Crude oil closed up another 53 cents Tuesday to $44.40, still well below the $49.40 record level set on August 20.

Earnings News

After the market bell, Oracle edged out Wall Street’s earnings estimate for its first fiscal quarter, with top-line revenue coming in within the expected range.

The Redwood City, California, software company posted earnings of $509 million, or 10 cents per share, on revenue of $2.2 billion for the quarter ended August 31.

That compares with earnings of $440 million, or 8 cents per share, on revenue of $2 billion for the same period last year.

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