Swine flu worries put a damper on stocks

The swine flu gave Wall Street a reason to turn cautious Monday.

The Dow Jones industrial average gave up a midday recovery and retreated about 0.6% as the swine flu's death count in Mexico grew to about 150 people from 100.

There have been far fewer cases reported elsewhere, including the United States, and no other fatalities. Investors were also mindful of previous health scares that had only short-term jostling effects on the market including bird flu, Mad Cow disease and the West Nile virus — none of which ever escalated to into global pandemics.

Still, Wall Street decided to hedge its bets as the U.S. cases of swine flu doubled to about 40.

Ryan Larson, senior equity trader at Voyageur Asset Management, said the flu was a "wild card" for the market. "It's still a little bit early to go into panic mode, but it's definitely something that needs to be watched closely," Larson said.

Airline and other travel-related stocks suffered the sharpest losses Monday. The European Union health commissioner advised Europeans to avoid nonessential travel to Mexico and the United States, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta said the recommendation was unwarranted.

Craig Peckham, market strategist at Jefferies & Co., called the flu an "easy excuse" for investors to cash in any profits they may have made in recent weeks. The Dow stalled last week, but remains up about 23% since its nearly 12-year low on March 9 after better-than-expected earnings and economic reports.

The Dow's losses were mitigated by General Motors, which said it will cut 21,000 jobs by next year and ask the government to exchange GM debt for stock. The bailed-out automaker's announcement did not erase the possibility of a GM bankruptcy, but made it appear a bit less likely.

The Dow fell 51.29, or 0.6%, to 8,025.00.

Broader stock indicators also closed lower. The Standard & Poor's 500 index fell 8.72, or 1%, to 857.51, and the Nasdaq composite index fell 14.88, or 0.9%, to 1,679.41.

The Russell 2000 index of smaller companies fell 9.21, or 1.9%, to 469.53.

About two stocks fell for every one that rose on the New York Stock Exchange, where volume came to 1.4 billion shares.

GM rose 35 cents, or nearly 21%, to $2.04.

The stocks of airlines, hotels and other travel-related companies suffered heavy losses.

Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide fell nearly 11%, falling $2.27 to $18.55. Cruise operator Carnival fell $3.84 or 13.5% to $24.59, and Delta Air Lines fell 14.3%, or $1.13, to $6.75.

Some pharmaceutical stocks, however, climbed. GlaxoSmithKline gained 7.6%, rising $2.22 to $31.56, and Gilead Sciences rose 3.8%, climbing $1.73 to $47.53. The two companies make flu treatments.

Although the swine flu distracted investors somewhat, they were still wary about financial stocks as they awaited the results of the government's stress tests on 19 big banks. The tests are due next Monday, and some analysts said the lack of details about the methodology of the tests is unsettling investors.

Citigroup fell 12 cents, or 3.8%, to $3.07, while Bank of America slipped 18 cents, or 1.98%, to $8.92.

Credit card issuers in particular were "sell" targets. Discover Financial Services fell $1.01, or 11%, to $8.08, while Capital One Financial fell $2.28, or 12%, to $16.74. There are growing concerns in the market that more cardholders will default on their balances as the recession continues.

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