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PESSIMISTIC INVESTORS SEND MARKET LOWER

A new report suggesting the economy is improving failed to cheer Wall Street today as investors sent the Nasdaq to its lowest level in more than two years.

Analysts said the declines reflected investors' unwillingness to participate in a market where stronger company profits and stock prices remain elusive. Blue chips also sold off on the same worries.

At 1 p.m., the Nasdaq composite index was off 11.27 to 2,257.67, after tumbling as much as 83 points earlier in the session -- hitting its lowest intraday point since Dec. 31, 1998.

The Dow Jones industrial average slid 24.04 to 10,502.54, and the Standard & Poor's 500 index was off 4.20 to 1,251.07.

All three indexes are below where they started 2001, despite some healthy runups in some stocks last month. The Nasdaq has been particularly devastated: it is now nearly 56 percent off its all-time closing high reached in March of 5,048.62.

"I believe investor fear is beginning to develop," said Bill Barker, an investment strategy consultant at Dain Rauscher. "We're beginning to see people say I want out of this market because it's going to go a lot lower."

IBM fell another $1.52 to $105.99, building on a $3.99 loss Wednesday. But bargain hunters bid Cisco Systems up 75 cents to $25.88.

3M was up 95 cents at $112.21, and Boeing gained $1.10 to $61.30.

J.P. Morgan Chase was down again, dropping 92 cents to $46.43.

Emulex, which makes products that connect storage devices with computer servers, lost $1.25 to $29.88. Veritas, whose products manage stored data, slumped $8.50 to $63.88.

Qlogic Corp. slid $4.88 to $35.69 and Network Appliance lost $2.88 to $31.44. Banc of America Securities analyst Shaw Wu cut his ratings on Qlogic, a designer of chips and circuit boards that link computers and data-storage systems, and Network Appliance, a maker of storage devices, to "market performer" from "buy." Wu cited the "general softness in the U.S. economy and the warnings of other technology companies."

AOL Time Warner slipped 65 cents to $43.75. ABN Amro analyst Arthur Newman cut his rating on the largest media and Internet company to "add" from "buy." Newman said he sees little to move the stock higher until the economic and advertising outlook improve.

Analysts say the losses reflect investors' worries that the economy is slowing too much and it may be a year -- instead of months -- before there is a turnaround.

RadioShack slid $3.45 to $39. The retailer of electronic products, such as mobile and conventional phones, computers and electronic parts and accessories, missed analysts fiscal fourth-quarter profit forecast by 2.6 percent.

A report showing a 0.8 percent increase in U.S. economic activity in January did little to reassure Wall Street.

The New York-based Conference Board said its Index of Leading Economic Indicators rose a greater-than-expected 0.8 percent to 109.4 last month, reversing three consecutive monthly declines. The index is based on the performance of a number of economic sectors, ranging from weekly manufacturing hours and interest rates to initial claims for unemployment insurance.

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