Comments from a key U.S. trade negotiator stoked doubts overnight over how much progress was being made on resolving the trade war between the U.S. and China. There was more discouraging economic news from China, where a survey released Thursday showed manufacturing activity fell to a three-year low in February amid the tariff battle with Washington.
The monthly purchasing managers' index by the government statistics bureau and an industry group fell 0.3 points to 49.2 on a 100-point scale on which numbers below 50 indicate activity contracting. That was the lowest level since February 2016.
Chinese manufacturers have been hurt by President Donald Trump's punitive tariffs in a fight over Beijing's technology plans and cooling consumer demand at home and abroad. The trade battle and has rattled Chinese consumers, some of whom say they are putting off big purchases until the economic outlook is clearer. That sets back Beijing's campaign to nurture self-sustaining economic growth based on domestic consumption instead of exports and investment.
"Unless the trade war truly turns into an extended truce, the weakening trend may not end quickly," Irene Pang of ING said in a report. Major U.S. stock indexes closed mostly lower Wednesday after wavering for much of the day between small gains and losses. Health care, communications and technology companies took the heaviest losses, while financial, industrial and energy stocks notched gains.
Stocks headed broadly lower in early trading after U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer told a panel of lawmakers that "much still needs to be done" before the U.S. and China can reach an agreement. China has offered to make major purchases of U.S. goods, such as soybeans and natural gas, in a bid to resolve the conflict, but Lighthizer said such steps wouldn't be enough.
"The issues on the table are too serious to be resolved with promises of additional purchases," he said. "We need new rules." President Donald Trump has postponed increasing tariffs on $200 billion in Chinese goods that would have been effective March 2. He has not given a new date for the higher tariffs if negotiations falter.
WALL STREET: The S&P 500 index dropped 1.52 points to 2,792.38 and the Dow Jones Industrial Average gave up 0.3 percent, to 25,985.16. The Nasdaq composite gained 0.1 percent to 7,554.51, while the Russell 2000 index picked up 0.2 percent to 1,581.05. Major indexes in Europe declined.
ENERGY: U.S. crude lost 5 cents to $56.89 per barrel in electronic trading on the New York Mercantile Exchange. It climbed 2.6 percent to settle at $56.94 a barrel on Wednesday. Brent crude, used to price international oils, slipped 21 cents to $66.37 per barrel. It gained 1.9 percent to close at $66.58 a barrel in London.
CURRENCIES: The dollar declined to 110.90 yen from 110.99 yen on Wednesday. The euro strengthened to $1.1378 from $1.1367.
AP Business writers Damian J. Troise and Alex Veiga contributed.