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At the open: U.S. stocks fall on ugly consumer sentiment reading

Traders work on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.

BRENDAN MCDERMID/REUTERS

The S&P 500 was lower at the open, widening its distance from record highs, as a disappointing read on U.S. consumer sentiment jolted investors who are becoming accustomed to nearly daily gains in stock markets.

The TSX was still managing to stay in the green, however, with the support of mildly higher commodity prices.

The Reuter's/University of Michigan consumer confidence reading came in at 71.8, well below the 78 figure economists were expecting and its lowest level since December 2011.

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Shortly past 10 a.m. (ET), the S&P 500 was down 6 points, or 0.4 per cent, at 1,556. Thursday's close had put it within 2 points of its highest end-of-day level ever.

The Dow Jones industrial average was down 58 points, or 0.4 per cent, at 14,479 - threatening to put an end to its 10-day winning streak. The S&P/TSX composite index was up 44 points, or 0.3 per cent, at 12,844.

Other economic data today didn't have much influence on the market. The U.S. Commerce Department said the consumer price index rose 0.7 per cent in February, the first increase in four months and the biggest since June 2009 - and also higher than forecasts calling for a rise of 0.5 per cent. But a surge in gasoline accounted for almost 75 per cent of last month's price increases. Meanwhile, the U.S. Federal Reserve Board said industrial production rose 0.7 per cent last month, beating expectations for a 0.3 per cent rise.

Things could still get more interesting today, especially in the final hour of trading. Today is the so-called quadruple-witching day, the simultaneous expiration of index futures, index options, individual stock options and individual stock futures that occurs on the third Friday of March. Volumes tend to be higher than usual on such days, with an added dose of volatility.

U.S. financials are seeing heavy trading today. Bank of America Corp. is up nearly 3 per cent after it received Federal Reserve approval late Thursday to buy back as much as $5-billion in stock.

Several other banks late Thursday announced plans to return money to shareholders following final stress test results from the Fed. BB&T and Ally Financial were the only two that failed the tests, although JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Goldman Sachs & Co. were told to resubmit their share-distribution plans. JPMorgan shares are down 3 per cent and Goldman Sachs is down 1.3 per cent.

Elsewhere, Carnival Corp. is cruising to some heavy stock market losses today after it cut its full-year revenue forecast and posted lower cabin revenue for its latest quarter. News also emerged overnight of another technical difficulty at a cruise ship - the second time this week. Shares are down 4.3 per cent.

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Apple Inc. shares continue to rise, with Samsung's new Galaxy phone - a key competitor for the iPhone - getting mixed reviews. Apple shares are up 1.6 per cent. Research In Motion Ltd. shares are down about 1 per cent.

Overnight, Japanese stocks were the star performer, with the Nikkei rising 1.45 per cent after Japan's political parties confirmed Haruhiko Kuroda as Bank of Japan governor. That suggests more stimulus measures lie ahead for the key Asian economy.

European stocks are lower this morning, with London's FTSE 100 down 0.5 per cent.

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