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Stocks give up an early gain; storm sinks insurers

Daniel Wagner, AP Business Writer

FILE - In this Wednesday, Oct. 31, 2012, file photo, a trader works on the floor at the New York Stock Exchange in New York. U.S. stock futures are mixed in light trading with attention fixed on the country's latest jobs report, a final glimpse at the employment landscape before the presidential election Tuesday. The economy is the top issue for voters in a very tight election race. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File)

Enthusiasm about a solid October jobs report quickly faded on Wall Street Friday. Stocks drifted lower as companies began to assess the potential cost of Superstorm Sandy.

Insurers plunged on expectations that losses from the catastrophe will eat into their fourth-quarter earnings. AIG fell 7 percent, Genworth Financial 3 percent, Arch Capital Group 4 percent and Hartford Financial Services Group 3 percent.

In the last big piece of economic news before Tuesday's presidential election, the Labor Department said employers added 171,000 jobs last month, while the unemployment rate ticked up to 7.9 percent. More jobs were added in the previous two months than was first reported, the government said.

The economy is the top issue in the election, but few expect the latest jobs numbers — solid, but not great — will sway many voters. Stocks in Europe rose after the report was released at 8:30 a.m. Eastern time, but fell back after the U.S. rally faded.

The Dow Jones industrial average rose as much as 57 points in the first minute of trading, then turned negative before a half-hour had passed. A sell-off in the last two hours of trading widened the losses.

The Dow was down 134 points at 13,098 shortly before the close of trading. The Standard & Poor's 500 index fell 13 to 1,414. The Nasdaq composite average lost 36 to 2,983.

Several analysts warned that the storm could take a toll on the earnings of insurers. Raymond James analysts lowered their earnings estimates for Allstate. Barclays analysts cut their earnings estimates for Hartford Financial.

The chairman of Hartford, Liam McGee, told investors on a conference call that it was too early to say what the storm will end up costing. "It's much too early for us to provide data with any level of certainty," McGee said. It wasn't until Thursday that adjustors were able to view the damage to Long Island, one of the hardest-hit areas, he said.

Insurers were not the only companies to suffer in Sandy's wake. Delta Air Lines said it lost $45 million in revenue last month because of flight cancellations during and after the storm. Shares rose 3 cents to $9.74.

And Verizon Communications Inc., whose downtown Manhattan facilities are still without power, said the storm would have a "significant" effect on its fourth-quarter earnings. Verizon said it could not yet estimate the cost of the storm, which downed cell towers across the region. Its stock fell 43 cents to $44.71.

"The information coming out from the economic impact of Sandy is a negative," said Rob Lutts, president of Cabot Money Management in Salem, Mass. "I think the markets are trying to digest that and understand that, so there is a little bit of uncertainty."

Consumer discretionary stocks were the only rising category in the S&P 500. Internet travel sites priceline.com and TripAdvisor Inc. were among the S&P 500's top gainers. The companies surprised investors with better-than-expected third-quarter earnings after the market closed on Thursday. TripAdvisor rose $6.12, or 21 percent, to $35.53. Priceline added $61.24, or 10 percent, to $647.34.

Starbucks rounded out the S&P 500's top three gainers, adding $4.47, or 10 percent, to $51.09. The ubiquitous coffee vendor said late Thursday that global revenue at cafes open at least a year rose 6 percent during its fiscal fourth quarter, which runs from July through September.

Home decor retailer Restoration Hardware Holdings Inc. shot up $7.74, or 32 percent, to $31.74 in its first day of trading on the New York Stock Exchange.


AP Business Writer Steve Rothwell contributed to this story.

Daniel Wagner can be reached at www.twitter.com/wagnerreports.