US STOCKS-Wall St drops for third day as Fed concerns continue

Last Updated: Thu, Dec 12, 2013 18:20 hrs

* Retail sales top expectations; initial jobless claims jump

* Lululemon tumbles after Q4 sales warning

* Hilton, Aramark climb in first day after IPOs

* Dow down 0.7 pct, S&P 500 off 0.4 pct, Nasdaq off 0.1 pct

By Chuck Mikolajczak

NEW YORK, Dec 12 (Reuters) - U.S. stocks slid on Thursday, putting the S&P 500 on track for a third straight fall as economic data did little to give investors clarity on how soon the Federal Reserve would begin to scale back its stimulus program.

Concerns that the Fed would taper its stimulus earlier than expected have weighed on the market for days. The three major U.S. stock indexes recorded their biggest drop in a month on Wednesday as traders took profits from the recent rally a day after a provisional budget deal was reached in Washington. The budget agreement removed a potential economic hurdle cited by the Fed in September when it chose to keep its stimulus intact.

Many market participants have expected the Fed to announce a cut in stimulus in March, but that timeline may have been accelerated by some in the wake of Friday's better-than-expected November payrolls report. The Fed has said it would slow its $85 billion a month in bond purchases when certain economic measures meet its targets, including a drop in the U.S. unemployment rate.

Data on Thursday once again sent mixed signals on the economy, as retail sales rose solidly in November and October business inventories showed the largest gain since January. However, initial claims for unemployment benefits surged last week - rising 68,000 in their biggest jump in a year.

"It's a little bit of manic concern over tapering. The economy is not really getting that much better," said Stephen Massocca, managing director at Wedbush Equity Management LLC in San Francisco.

"The equity income space is under pressure over tapering fears - to the point it is getting a little cuckoo."

The central bank's massive bond-buying program has been a driving force in the S&P 500's gain of 24.5 percent this year.

The Fed's policymakers are due to meet Dec 17-18 for the final time this year.

The Dow Jones industrial average fell 107.64 points or 0.68 percent, to 15,735.89. The S&P 500 lost 6.89 points or 0.39 percent, to 1,775.33. The Nasdaq Composite dropped 4.335 points or 0.11 percent, to 3,999.478.

Facebook Inc helped limit the Nasdaq's decline. Shares of the social networking company shot up 3.8 percent to $51.25 after Standard & Poor's said that Facebook will join the S&P 500 after the close of trading on Dec. 20.

In the retail sector, shares of J.C. Penney Co Inc slipped 0.1 percent to $8.47. Chief Executive Officer Mike Ullman told Reuters in an exclusive interview that the department store chain is eliminating or trimming some high-profile brands introduced by former CEO Ron Johnson. Penney intends to use the floor space for its more profitable private-label brands.

Lululemon Athletica Inc shares tumbled 11 percent to $60.83 after the yoga apparel company said fewer customers are visiting its stores and supply-chain issues are hitting sales in the crucial fourth quarter.

Investors also dealt with a flurry of initial public offerings, including Hilton Worldwide Holdings Inc. The stock rose 8 percent to $21.60 from its $20 pricing on the New York Stock Exchange. The debut marked the hotel operator's return to the public markets some six years after Blackstone Group LP took it private in one of the largest deals of the leveraged-buyout boom.

Food services provider Aramark Holdings Corp staged a more impressive debut, up 10.2 percent at $22.04 after pricing at $20 per share. The Philadelphia-based company was returning to the market for the third time, after being taken private first in 1984 and then again in 2006.

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