Stocks wobble; Caterpillar, Boeing lead Dow

NEW YORK (AP) ? Stocks wavered between slight gains and losses Tuesday after consumer confidence dropped to the lowest level since April 2009. Boeing and Caterpillar led the Dow Jones industrial average higher.

The drop in the Conference Board’s Consumer Confidence Index was far worse than analysts expected, leaving the index at only half of the level consistent with a healthy economy. The index plunged 15 points to 44.5 in August, well below the estimate of 53.3 from economists surveyed by FactSet. The index is usually at 90 or above when the economy is strong.

The sharp fall in the measure of how U.S. consumers feel about the economy could mean weaker sales for retailers and makers of consumer goods like clothes and shoes. Retailers are in the midst of the critical back-to-school shopping season, which can account for as much as 25 percent of their annual revenue.

The Dow Jones industrial average was down 35 points in early trading, then fell 109 points five minutes after the confidence report came out at 10 a.m. By 12:30 p.m., it was up 6 points at 11,544.

Companies that rely most heavily on consumer spending fell more than the broader market. Retailer Kohl’s Corp. fell 1.8 percent and Nike Inc. fell 1.4 percent.

Boeing Co. rose 2 percent after the aircraft maker said it received approval from its board to build a version of its workhorse 737 jet with a redesigned engine. That should help it better compete with rival Airbus. Caterpillar rose 2.2 percent, most of the 30 companies that make up the Dow average.

The Standard & Poor’s 500 rose less than a point to 1,211. The Nasdaq composite index rose 11, or 0.4 percent, to 2,573.

Stocks have swung widely in August. The Dow was down as much as 7.4 percent for the year on Aug. 10, but it is now down just 0.3 percent. On Monday, the Dow soared 254 points, its fourth-largest gain this year. Insurers rose the most after it became clear the damage from Tropical Storm Irene wasn’t nearly as bad as analysts had feared.

The Standard & Poor’s 500 index hit a 2011 low Aug. 8 after the U.S. government’s credit rating was downgraded for the first time. Since then, it has risen 8 percent.

Bond prices have been just as volatile. The yield on the 10-year Treasury note briefly fell to a record low below 2 percent on Aug. 18 on weak manufacturing data from the Philadelphia Federal Reserve. On Tuesday, the yield fell to 2.18 percent, down from 2.27 percent late Monday.