Housing Dents Stocks; VIX Falls Below 30

Stocks declined Tuesday after housing starts unexpectedly fell to a record low.

Futures had been pointing higher for most of the morning, buoyed by news that banks may break free from the government's grip but the housing report derailed the rally.

This came after stocks jumped 2.8 percent Monday, reversing much of last week's slump, following bullish analyst comments on banks.

But the CBOE Volatility Index , widely considered the best gauge of fear in the market, fell below the key 30 level for the first time since September, just before the market meltdown. In Monday's session, the VIX touched the 30 level, before settling just above that mark.

Housing starts tumbled 12.8 percentto an annual rate of 458,000 units in April, after an 8.5-percent drop in March. That was the lowest on record and much lower than the 520,000 pace economists had expected. Building permits, a gauge of future activity, also dropped to a fresh record low.

Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley wobbled at the open after the banks applied to pay back the funds they borrowed under the Troubled Asset Relief Program, various sources said. The early repayment of the funds may mean that the taxpayers are not getting the returns they were banking on, the New York Times reported.

Overall, banks were mixed, with Citigroup and State Street among the gainers, after the banks on Monday announced plans to raise capital.

In a sign that all is not rosy in the financial sector, American Express said Monday after the bell that it plans to eliminate 4,000 jobs, or 6 percent of its workforce, as higher customer defaults were brought on by the recession. Still, its shares declined.

Dow component Home Depot skidded after the home-improvement chain beat earnings expectations but reported sales declined nearly 10 percent.

This came a day after rival Lowe's reported its profit declined but beat expectations and the company raised its forecast. Its shares were down today after gaining more than 8 percent Monday.

Over in tech land, American depositary shares of Nokia continued to climb a day after the Finnish handset maker announced it was rolling out three new phones that were capable of accessing the Internet but priced on the lower end of the scale.

And Germany's Vodafone , the world's largest mobile carrier by revenues, said it would speed up cost-cutting efforts after a $9.1 billion impairment charge because of problems in Spain and Turkey.

General Motors rose as the automaker moves closer to what some say is imminent bankruptcy and as the government prepares to implement strict new fuel standards.

GM CEO Fritz Henderson said auto sales remain weak: "At this point, May feels a lot like April," were his exact words.

Shares of rival Ford fell.

This Week:

TUESDAY: Fed's Stern speaks; Earnings from HP, Analog Devices after the bell
WEDNESDAY: Weekly mortgage apps; weekly oil inventories; Fed minutes; Fed's Plosser speaks; Earnings from Target, Toll Brothers and BJ's Wholesale
THURSDAY: Weekly jobless claims; Philly Fed report; leading indicators; Fed's Plosser speaks; Earnings from Gamestop, Hormel, Gap and Aeropostale
FRIDAY: Earnings from Campbell Soup

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