By Atossa Araxia Abrahamian
NEW YORK (Reuters) - U.S. stocks declined in quiet trading on Monday, pulling back from recent five-year highs as investors awaited the start of what many expect will be a weak earnings season.
Analysts forecast earnings will fall 2.4 percent from the year-ago quarter, which would mark the first decline in three years and make it difficult to justify keeping stocks near recent peaks.
The reporting season begins on Tuesday with aluminum company and Dow component Alcoa Inc <AA.N>, which is expected to post a break-even quarter compared with a 15-cents per share profit a year earlier. Alcoa shares were unchanged at $9.09.
"We've had a good run, and we're toward the top end of range," said Scott Wren, senior equity strategist at Wells Fargo Advisors in St. Louis. "There's very little chance for surprises in the earnings. We're going to see downward comparisons overall."
Strategists and investors say U.S. stock valuations are broadly out of sync with earnings estimates.
Trading was light as the U.S. government and the bond market were closed for the Columbus Day holiday. Volume was less than 3 billion shares with slightly more than an hour of trading left.
The Dow Jones industrial average <.DJI> was down 28.92 points, or 0.21 percent, at 13,581.23. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index <.SPX> was down 5.27 points, or 0.36 percent, at 1,455.66. The Nasdaq Composite Index <.IXIC> was down 22.43 points, or 0.72 percent, at 3,113.75.
Sentiment also suffered after the World Bank reduced its growth forecasts for the East Asia and Pacific region and warned the slowdown in China could worsen and last longer than many analysts expect.
The World Bank also slashed its economic growth forecasts for Russia, predicting that labor shortages in the country would force up inflation.
Europe's debt problems have contributed to weakened global growth. Euro-zone officials met on Monday to launch the region's bailout fund. At the meeting finance ministers said that Spain did not need a bailout because it was taking steps to put its finances in order.
For investors, the long-term outlook for Europe is for a drawn-out struggle to resolve debt problems. "This thing has years to play out," said Wren. "We're nowhere near the end of this in any way, shape, or form."
Recent earnings warnings from large multinationals such as FedEx Corp <FDX.N>, Caterpillar Inc <CAT.N> and Hewlett-Packard Co <HPQ.N>, have cited weakness in Europe and China.
"Certainly there has been a lot of downward revisions in earnings in general. Some people are predicting that we may see an overall decline in earnings, so there may be some defensive posturing and profit-taking," Peter Jankovskis, co-chief investment officer at OakBrook Investments LLC in Lisle, Illinois, said.
According to Thomson Reuters data through Monday, 91 companies in the Standard & Poor's 500 <.INX> have issued negative outlooks versus 21 positive preannouncements, for a ratio of 4.3, the weakest showing since the third quarter of 2001.
Netflix <NFLX.O> gained 10 percent to $73.26 after Morgan Stanley upgraded the video streaming company, saying it could become a global video platform.
Apple Inc <AAPL.O> shares shed 2.1 percent to $638.68 and was the biggest drag on both the S&P 500 and Nasdaq 100 <.NDX> indexes after China Labor Watch, a rights advocate group, said that a Foxconn plant in China that makes Apple's iPhone was crippled by a strike. Foxconn, a Taiwanese company, denied the report.
UnitedHealth Group <UNH.N> shares gained 0.6 percent to $57.69 after the health insurer said it would buy a 90 percent stake in Amil Participacoes SA <AMIL3.SA>, Brazil's largest healthcare company, for about $4.9 billion.
Chemicals maker TPC Group Inc <TPCG.O> said it received a buyout proposal from Innospec Inc <IOSP.O> for $721.3 million, topping an offer made by private equity firms. TPC shares jumped 4.9 percent to $45.60 while Innospec shed 2 percent to $33.65.
(Reporting by Atossa Araxia Abrahamian)
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