Stocks markets close flat, Fed chief issues warning on fiscal cliff

TORONTO – The Toronto stock market closed little changed Tuesday with traders disinclined to build on a strong gain as U.S. Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke told markets not to count on the central bank to clean up the mess if politicians fail to head off a looming fiscal crisis.

The S&P/TSX composite index added 5.88 points to 12,046.28 after jumping 163 points Monday while the TSX Venture Exchange declined 7.66 points to 1,242.3.

The Canadian dollar shed 0.07 of a cent to 100.27 cents US.

U.S. indexes were also held back in part by major earnings disappointments from tech giant Hewlett Packard and electronics chain Best Buy.

The Dow Jones industrials slipped 7.45 points to 12,788.51 after surging 208 points a day earlier, the Nasdaq inched up 0.61 of a point to 2,916.68 and the S&P 500 index was up 0.93 of a point to 1,387.82.

Markets had rallied strongly Monday amid relief that U.S. politicians appeared to be taking a more conciliatory stand ahead of negotiations to avert the imposition of deep spending cuts and steep tax hikes at the start of 2013.

Going over the so-called fiscal cliff would deliver a severe shock to the economy and likely send it into recession.

Bernanke warned during a speech to the Economic Club of New York that uncertainty about heading off steep spending cuts and tax increases at the first of the year is already holding back spending and troubling investors.

He also made it clear that the Fed couldn’t do much to minimize the damage from a failure to deal with the crisis.

“If the economy goes off the broad fiscal cliff, I don’t think the Fed has the tools to offset that,” he said.

Bernanke added that worries about another round of negotiations on raising the federal debt limit in February are also contributing to uncertainty.

Analysts also cautioned that markets aren’t in the mood to wait very long for progress from negotiations next week after the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday is out of the way.

“At some point the market is going to say, OK well enough talk, let’s see what you have,” said Allan Small, senior adviser at DWM Securities.

“The closer it gets to the end of the year, the markets aren’t going to wait for Dec. 31 to react. If they don’t do something right after Thanksgiving, if they don’t see something within the first week, some progression, then the market will sell off again.”

Shares in Hewlett-Packard Co. plunged 11.95 per cent to US$11.71. The tech giant is taking a US$8.8-billion charge in its latest quarterly results as it said there were “serious accounting improprieties, disclosure failures and outright misrepresentations at Autonomy Corporation PLC,” which HP bought last year.

HP’s net loss for the fiscal fourth quarter amounted to $6.85 billion, or $3.49 per share. That compares with net income of $239 million, or 12 cents per share, in the same period last year.

Electronics chain Best Buy Co. reported another dismal quarter on Tuesday, recording a loss of $10 million or three cents per share in the third quarter, hurt by a continued sales slump and charges related to restructuring. That compares with net income of $156 million, or 42 cents per share in the prior-year period and its shares dropped 13 per cent to $11.96.

Commodity prices slipped following big gains Monday.

The gold sector off about 0.7 per cent with December bullion was down $10.80 to US$1,723.60 an ounce. Centerra Gold (TSX:CG) fell 37 cents to $9.17 while Agnico-Eagle Mines (TSX:AEM) faded 84 cents to $54.36.

The consumer staples sector also pressured the TSX with convenience store chain Jean Coutu Group (TSX:PJC.A) fell 39 cents to $14.52.

December copper closed down one cent at US$3.52 a pound following an eight-cent jump Monday. The base metals sector declined 0.28 per cent as Thompson Creek Metals (TSX:TCM) dropped 14 cents to C$2.68 while Turquoise Hill Resources (TSX:TRQ) dropped 21 cents to $7.46.

The energy sector was flat as word of a possible ceasefire between Israel and the Hamas leadership that controls Gaza helped push the January crude contract on the New York Mercantile Exchange down $2.53 to US$86.75 a barrel. Prices had run up sharply over the previous two sessions on worries that fighting could spread, jeopardizing oil shipments from the Mideast. Cenovus Energy (TSX:CVE) gave back 37 cents to C$32.62 and Imperial Oil (TSX:IM) shed 32 cents to $43.48.

A late day rise in the financial sector limited losses, rising 0.8 per cent as Royal Bank (TSX:RY) was up 87 cents to $57.40 and Sun Life Financial (TSX:SLF) was ahead 45 cents to $26.69.

Traders also looked to the eurozone after France lost its AAA credit rating.

Moody’s Investors Service cited concerns over France’s prospects for economic growth and its exposure to Europe’s financial crisis in announcing its downgrade.

This is the second ratings downgrade to have hit France this year: Standard & Poor’s agency lowered its score in January.

In other corporate developments, Research In Motion Ltd. (TSX:RIM) drifted 11 cents higher to $9.70. It had traded as high as $10.02 after Jeffries tech analyst Peter Misek upgraded the stock from underperform to hold. He said he was surprised by the strongly positive initial feedback on RIM’s new BB10 handset from carriers. The BB10 is expected to be launched Jan. 30.

Canadian Satellite Radio Holdings Inc. (TSX:XSR), the parent company of Sirius XM Canada Inc., said Tuesday it will pay a special cash dividend of 8.25 cents per class A subordinate voting share and 2.75 cents per class B voting share. The broadcaster will also pay begin paying a quarterly dividend of the same amount and its shares surged 18.37 per cent to $5.80.

Note to readers: This a corrected story. An earlier version said S&P downgraded France on Monday rather than Moody’s.