Early signs of weak holiday spending send retail stocks lower as traders return from holiday

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FILE - This July 15, 2013, file photo, shows a sign for Wall Street outside the New York Stock Exchange, in New York. Global stock markets were mostly lower Monday, Nov. 30, 2015, as investors looked ahead to this week's public appearances by the U.S. Federal Reserve chief for signs of whether the central bank will raise interest rates in December. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan, File)

NEW YORK — Stocks closed modestly lower on Monday, as traders returned from the Thanksgiving holiday to focus on the early signs of how the holiday shopping season may turn out and where interest rates may go in the U.S. and Europe.

The Dow Jones industrial average lost 78.57 points, or 0.4 percent, to 17,719.92. The Standard & Poor's 500 index lost 9.70 points, or 0.5 percent, to 2,080.41 and the Nasdaq composite lost 18.86 points, or 0.4 percent, to 5,108.67.

Consumer discretionary stocks were among the biggest decliners, including the big department stores like Macy's, Kohl's, Wal-Mart and Target. Initial data from the first holiday shopping weekend showed shoppers were not going to stores as much as last year.

Preliminary data from ShopperTrak showed in-store sales on Thanksgiving and Black Friday were $12.1 billion, down from $12.3 billion the year earlier. This despite an economic climate that should be inherently good for Americans to shop in, including lower gas prices from a year ago and an improving job market.

"We believe Black Friday has gone from a period of management excitement to one of anguish," Nomura retail analysts Simeon Siegel, Gene Vladimirov and Julie Kim wrote in a note to investors.

Investment bank analysts observed the department stores having to do deep discounting to attract shoppers to their stores. But data from research firms like ChannelAdvisor showed strong growth in sales online, which could suggest consumers decided to spend online instead of in brick-and-mortar shops.

Consumer discretionary stocks fell 1 percent, compared to the 0.5 percent drop in the S&P 500. Some of the more notable decliners were Macy's, which fell 91 cents, or 2.3 percent, to $39.08, Wal-Mart, which fell $1.05, or 1.8 percent, to $58.84 and Urban Outfitters, which fell $1.25, or 5.3 percent, to $22.40. Even online retail giant Amazon dropped $8.46, or 1.3 percent, to $664.80.

"While it's too early to make the call about how 2015 holiday revenues (and margins) will unfold, our survey results for the Black Friday weekend don't add a lot of confidence for the broad retail landscape," Dave Weiner and Sindhu Chitturi, retail analysts for Deutsche Bank, wrote in a note to investors.

More broadly, investors are also focused on this week's European Central Bank meeting and the release of U.S. jobs data.

The European Central Bank is widely expected to give the region's economy another dose of stimulus as it tries to keep a recovery going and get inflation closer to 2 percent. The stimulus is likely to include increasing the amount banks have to pay to park money at the ECB, giving them an incentive to lend it out instead.

While the ECB moves toward increasing stimulus, the Federal Reserve is getting ready to start raising interest rates for the first time since June 2006. A series of U.S. economic reports this week, culminating with Friday's jobs survey for November, could cement investors' expectations for a rate hike at the Fed's next policy meeting in mid-December.

"Unless this report is a total disaster, I think it's very, very likely the Fed is going to raise in December," said Scott Wren, senior equity strategist at the Wells Fargo Investment Institute.

The policy divergence between the two central banks has weighed on the euro and sent the dollar higher. On Monday the euro fell to $1.0572, its lowest level since April. It traded at $1.0591 late Friday.

Major U.S. stock indexes ended November with slight gains. The S&P 500 rose less than 0.1 percent and the Dow gained 0.3 percent.

Benchmark U.S. crude fell 6 cents to $41.65 a barrel in New York. Brent crude, which is used to price international oils, lost 25 cents to close at $44.61 a barrel in London. In other energy trading, wholesale gasoline fell 3.2 cents to $1.359 a gallon, heating oil fell 1.6 cents to $1.337 a gallon and natural gas rose 2.3 cents to $2.235 per 1,000 cubic feet.

U.S. government bond prices didn't move much. The yield on the 10-year Treasury note edged down to 2.21 percent. The dollar rose to 123.12 yen from 122.85 yen late Friday.

Gold rose $9.60 to $1,065.80 an ounce, silver edged up four cents to $14.05 an ounce and copper edged down half a penny to $2.04 a pound.

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