(By Balachander) U.S. stocks closed in red as investors digested a mixed set of economic data and continued to weigh minutes from last month's Federal Reserve policy meeting that showed policy makers differed over the stimulus program.
The S&P 500 Index declined 0.63 percent to end at 1,502.42. The Dow Jones lost 0.34 percent to finish at 13,880.62. The Nasdaq Composite Index retreated 1.04 percent to close at 3,131.49.
The number of Americans who continued to receive jobless benefits rose more than forecast last week, a government data showed. Jobless claims rose 20,000 to 362,000 for the week ended Feb. 16 from a revised 342,000, while economists projected 355,000 applications.
The Philadelphia Federal Reserve Manufacturing Index fell to a negative 12.5 in February from a negative 5.8 in January, while economists expected a reading of a positive 1.0. A negative reading indicates a contraction in regional manufacturing activity.
The Conference Board's leading economic indicators index for January inched 0.2 percent higher in January after a 0.5 percent rise in December, while economists expected the index to increase by 0.3 percent.
The National Association of Realtors reported that existing home sales for January unexpectedly increased 0.4 percent to 4.92 million in January
from a revised 4.90 million in December, while economists expected 4.90 million.
A report showed that core consumer price index rose 0.3 percent and the headline index was unchanged in January. Economists expected the core reading to rise 0.2 percent and the headline index to increase 0.1 percent.
Most participants commented that the Committee's asset purchases had been effective in easing financial conditions and helping stimulate economic activity. However, many voiced concerns about potential costs and risks arising from further asset purchases, minutes of the Fed's January 29-30 policy-setting committee meeting showed.
In European news, eurozone purchasing managers' index declined to a three-month low of 47.3 in February from 48.6 in January, flash estimate from Markit Economics showed, pointing the region's economic downturn deepened.
Hot Stocks Of The Day: WMT, TSLA, SWY, PAY, BRY, BRC, AZZ, GENT
Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (NYSE: WMT) rose 1.52 percent after the world's largest retail chain store operator posted higher earnings and revenue for the fourth quarter driven by gains in comparable store sales and the Dow component raised its fiscal year 2014 dividend by 18 percent to $1.88 per share.
Tesla Motors Inc. (NASDAQ: TSLA) lost 8.77 percent after the maker of electric vehicles reported a wider quarterly loss due to higher costs and expenses.
Safeway Inc. (NYSE: SWY) surged 14.11 percent after the food and drug retailer posted better-than-expected quarterly earnings and revenue as gift, prepaid card sales and identical-store sales rose.
VeriFone Systems Inc. (NYSE: PAY) tumbled 42.80 percent after the San Jose, California-based secure electronic payment services company offered a downbeat earnings forecast, citing weakness in Europe.
Berry Petroleum Co. (NYSE: BRY) surged 19.25 percent after the energy company agreed to be acquired by Linn Energy LLC (NASDAQ: LINE) for $4.3 billion in stock including debt.
Brady Corp. (NYSE: BRC) lost 2.82 percent after provider of identification services said it expects 2013 earnings toward the lower end of its prior outlook.
AZZ Inc. (NYSE: AZZ) declined 7.69 percent after the company lowered its earnings and revenue forecast for fiscal 2013. The company said recent significant customer requested delays in the delivery of the electrical and industrial products and revenue fell in the Galvanizing Services segment due to the higher-than-expected slowdown during December and January.
Gentium S.p.A. (NASDAQ: GENT) plunged 20.62 percent after the Italian biopharmaceutical company said it expects an opinion recommending against approval of the Marketing Authorization Application for Defibrotide from the European Medicines Agency's Committee for Medicinal Products for Human Use (CHMP).
European markets closed sharply lower, with Germany's DAX down 1.88 percent to close at 7,583.57. France's CAC40 fell 2.29 percent to finish at 3,624.80. The U.K.'s FTSE 100 retreated 1.62 percent to end at 6,291.54.
Asian markets ended in red, tracking global cues. The Shanghai Composite Index plunged 2.97 percent to end at $2,325.95. Japan's Nikkei 225 retreated 1.39 percent to end at 11,309.13. Hong Kong's Hang Seng lost 1.72 percent to close at 22,906.67. India's Sensex closed at 19,325.36, down 1.62 percent.
Commodity & Currency Scan
Crude oil futures retreated 2.35 percent to $92.98 per barrel, and natural gas futures lost 1.16 percent to $3.24 per million metric British thermal units. Gold futures shed 0.15 percent to $1,575.70 per ounce and silver futures fell 0.06 percent to $28.61 per ounce.
In the currency market, the euro lost 0.76 percent against the U.S. dollar at 1.3182. The British pound rose 0.12 percent against the greenback to 1.5252, while the dollar dropped 0.47 percent against the Japanese yen at 93.1300.