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MARKET CLOSE: Economic data catches investors off guard

Investors weren't comforted by a hodge-podge of fresh economic reports Friday as the Dow Jones industrial average and Nasdaq composite both closed out a miserable week with heavy losses.

The Dow plummeted 208 points to finish at 9,823.41, while the Nasdaq peeled off another 50 points to close at 1,890.99.

The Labor Department reported that the Producer Price Index, which measures wholesale selling prices, moved up 0.1 percent in February, in line with analysts' estimates. Taking out price increases for food and skyrocketing energy prices, the core index fell 0.3 percent--its steepest decline since mid-1993.

Housing starts (the number of construction projects begun on new houses or apartment buildings) fell a modest 0.4 percent in February--not as much as most economists had predicted--to a decent clip of 1.647 million units at a seasonally adjusted annual rate. Also, a University of Michigan consumer confidence report came in at 91.8 in March, slightly higher than expected and better than the 90.6 level reported in February.

"It's the good news/bad news scenario," said Peter Coolidge, managing director of equity trading at Brean Murray & Co. "We need this consumer confidence to start getting to a bottom in this economic slowdown, but the bad news is that in the short term it would make the (Federal Reserve) more likely to cut (interest rates) less than more."

Computer Sciences (NYSE: CSC) was pounded after warning that it will miss analysts' estimates by a mile. The stock plunged $21.40 to $32.70 after telling the Street to expect fourth-quarter earnings of between 35 cents and 37 cents a share, far below the First Call consensus estimates of 92 cents a share.

Shares of Adobe (Nasdaq: ADBE) gained $3.63 to $28.63 after investors discounted its cautious revenue guidance after it posted better-than-expected earnings in its first quarter.

Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT) shares added 75 cents to $54.44. Oracle (Nasdaq: ORCL) shed 63 cents to $14.06 after it met reduced estimates in its third quarter and lowered targets for its fourth quarter. Sun Microsystems (Nasdaq: SUNW) inched up 13 cents to $11.

Compaq (NYSE: CPQ) shares fell only 50 cents to $18 after it cut estimates and announced it will lay off 5,000 workers.

Gateway (NYSE: GTW) clipped 5 cents to $14.86, while Dell (Nasdaq: DELL) and Apple Computer (Nasdaq: AAPL) closed off 56 cents and 13 cents a share, respectively.

Yahoo (Nasdaq: YHOO) dropped $1.38 to $13.63. America Online Time Warner (NYSE: AOL) closed off $1.24 to $39.35, while eBay (Nasdaq: EBAY) and CMGI (Nasdaq: CMGI) closed down $2.13 and 38 cents a share, respectively. Alloy Online (Nasdaq: ALOY) fell 25 cents to $9.75 after topping estimates in its fourth quarter.

Among widely held network-equipment stocks, Cisco Systems (Nasdaq: CSCO) trimmed 38 cents to $19.94, Nortel Networks (NYSE: NT) gained 98 cents to $16.88 and Lucent Technologies (NYSE: LU) shed $1.05 to finish at $9.99.

Intel (Nasdaq: INTC) slid 63 cents to $27.88. Advanced Micro Devices (NYSE: AMD) lost 18 cents to $23.38, and IBM (NYSE: IBM) tumbled $5.55 to $90.01.

ZDII staff and Reuters contributed to this roundup.