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U.S. stocks drift lower as Ukraine tensions fester

Published: Friday, March 7, 2014 4:00 p.m. CDT

NEW YORK (AP) — Stocks were directionless in late-afternoon trading Friday as tensions built in Ukraine, where the region of Crimea was preparing for a referendum on whether to split away and become part of Russia. Those concerns offset an encouraging pickup in hiring by U.S. employers last month.

KEEPING SCORE: The Standard & Poor's 500 index lost a point, or 0.1 percent, to 1,876 as of 3:10 p.m. Eastern. The Dow Jones industrial average was up 13 points, or less than 0.1 percent, at 16,434. The Nasdaq composite lost 23 points, or 0.5 percent, to 4,329. Three stocks fell for every two that rose on the New York Stock Exchange.

BIGGEST LOSERS: Biotechnology and health care stocks were among the biggest decliners. Biogen Idec fell $13.46, or 4 percent, to $327.23 and Amgen fell $2.50, or 2 percent, to $121.68. The Nasdaq composite index is more heavily weighted to biotechnology and specialty pharmaceutical companies, which is part of the reason the index is down more than the Dow or S&P 500.

JOBS: The Labor Department's report of 175,000 job additions last month was much better than expected. Economists had been forecasting an increase of 145,000 jobs, according to FactSet. Investors had low expectations because of winter storms that hit much of the country last month. The positive job figures were a relief because the harsh weather closed factories, lowered auto sales, and caused existing-home sales to plummet.

"People are hoping and praying that the recent slowness was weather related, and while this report gave people a little bit of hope that is the case, it is still too early to tell," said Krishna Memani, chief investment officer of OppenheimerFunds.

BONDS DROP: Bond prices fell. The yield on the 10-year Treasury note rose to 2.79 percent from 2.74 percent late Thursday. The yield had been as low as 2.60 percent earlier this week.

DON'T FORGET UKRAINE: Lawmakers in Russian-occupied Crimea unanimously declared they wanted to join Russia and would put the decision to voters in 10 days. President Barack Obama and several other Western leaders have condemned the referendum.

"The concerns on the geopolitical front are overshadowing the good news we got from the jobs number," said Dean Junkans, chief investment officer at Wells Fargo Private Bank, which manages $170 billion in assets.

BIG GAIN FOR BIG LOTS: The discount retail chain Big Lots soared $6.10, or 21 percent, to $35.36. Big Lots reported a decline in fourth-quarter profits but the company's sales came in much better than expected. The company also said it would shut down its struggling Canadian operations.

SAFEWAY BUYOUT: Grocery store chain Safeway fell 92 cents, or 2 percent, to 38.54 after the company said private equity firm Cerberus Capital would buy the company for $9 billion.

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