GLOBAL MARKETS-Shares edge lower, bonds rise, on data

Wed Mar 21, 2012 4:43pm EDT
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By Herbert Lash

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Global stocks drifted lower after U.S. housing data was less encouraging than expected on Wednesday and government debt prices rose as investors sought safety in less-risky assets.

U.S. equities started the day flat and then meandered near break-even as the data suggested a still-challenging environment in the U.S. housing sector, despite signs of recovery.

Sales of existing U.S. homes slipped 0.9 percent to an annual rate of 4.59 million units, the National Association of Realtors said. But January's sales pace was revised up to 4.63 million units from a previously reported 4.57 million units.

The benchmark S&P 500 Index see-sawed between modest gains and losses, but remains up about 12 percent on the year. Some viewed the session as the start of a short-term pullback from a rally that has not seen a significant correction since October; others saw just the opposite, the pause that refreshes.

"I think we are leveling off here, but the overall story hasn't changed much," said Joe Benanti, managing director at Rosenblatt Securities in New York. "We might dip back a little, but I see equities moving back higher to 1430s, even 1450s" (on the S&P 500).

Others said investors were selling shares to lock in gains after this year's torrid pace.

"There are things that stood out today that made me believe this might be the start of a 2 (percent) to 4 percent correction - the relative weakness in energy and industrial stocks, and the reversal in financial stocks," said Seth Setrakian, co-head of U.S. equities at First New York Securities.

"Investors usually wait for the start of a new quarter to take some money off the table. That tends to happen a little early when everyone is expecting the same thing."   Continued...

A woman smiles as she walks past an electronic board displaying graphs showing recent movements of Japanese market indices, outside a brokerage in Tokyo February 15, 2012. REUTERS/Yuriko Nakao