Wall Street falls after raft of weak data

NEW YORK (Reuters) - U.S. stocks declined on Thursday as a ream of weak economic data did little to assuage some investors' concerns that the Federal Reserve may rein in its economic stimulus measures and amid uncertainty over ongoing budget talks in Washington.

The number of Americans filing new claims for unemployment benefits rose last week and consumer prices were flat in January, buttressing the argument for the Fed to continue its accommodative monetary policy.

On Wednesday, minutes from the U.S. Federal Reserve's most recent meeting suggested the central bank may slow or stop buying bonds sooner than expected. The news sent shares lower and the benchmark S&P 500 index dropped 1.2 percent, its biggest decline since November 14.

The Fed has used quantitative easing, or QE, since 2008 in a bid to stimulate the economy. The policy, which involves expanding the Fed's balance sheet to buy bonds, has been credited with pushing money into the stock market, and its withdrawal would remove a ballast for the markets.

The benchmark S&P index has dropped 1.9 percent over the past two sessions but is still up more than 5 percent for the year. That's led many analysts to believe that the Fed minutes, the upcoming sequestration in Washington and sluggish consumer spending may be triggers for an overdue pullback in equities.

The sequestration - automatic across-the-board spending cuts put in place as part of a larger congressional budget fight - are due to kick in March 1 unless lawmakers agree on an alternative.

"It's the sequester, it's the knee-jerk reaction to yesterday's Fed minutes and it's the realization the consumer is slowing," said Phil Orlando, chief equity market strategist, at Federated Investors, in New York.

"I'd love to see a healthy 5 percent correction; let's wash out some of the weak hands and set up for a better move during the year."

Financial data firm Markit said its "flash," or preliminary U.S. Manufacturing Purchasing Managers Index slowed to 55.2 this month from 55.8, which had been the best showing since April, 2012.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc , seen as a gauge of consumer spending, said U.S. sales weakness persisted into early February, as Americans absorbed the impact of higher payroll taxes and gasoline prices, along with slow tax refunds that put some spending on hold. But shares rose 2.2 percent to $70.73 to help curb declines on the Dow as earnings topped expectations.

The Dow Jones industrial average <.dji> dropped 64.01 points, or 0.46 percent, to 13,863.53. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index <.spx> lost 10.33 points, or 0.68 percent, to 1,501.62. The Nasdaq Composite Index <.ixic> fell 25.93 points, or 0.82 percent, to 3,138.48.

In a positive sign, data showed home resales edged higher in January and left inventory of homes at its lowest level in 13 years as the housing market continues to steadily improve.

But the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia said its index of business conditions in the U.S. Mid-Atlantic region fell in February to minus 12.5, the lowest level in eight months, from minus 5.8 in January.

VeriFone Systems Inc tumbled 37.7 percent to $19.86 after the credit card swipe-machine maker forecast first and second-quarter profit that were well below analysts' expectations.

According to Thomson Reuters data through Thursday morning, of the 427 companies in the S&P 500 that have reported results, 69.3 percent have exceeded analysts' expectations, compared with a 62 percent average since 1994 and 65 percent over the past four quarters.

Fourth-quarter earnings for S&P 500 companies are estimated to have risen 5.9 percent, according to the data, above a 1.9 percent forecast at the start of the earnings season.

Berry Petroleum Co jumped 16.5 percent to $444.95 after oil and gas producer Linn Energy LLC said it would buy the company in an all-stock deal valued at $4.3 billion including debt. Linn Energy shares advanced 3 percent to $37.76.

(Editing by Bernadette Baum)

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