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MARKET CLOSE: CPI numbers give bears more ammunition

The closing bell couldn't ring fast enough Wednesday as tech and blue-chip stocks unraveled in late trading. The Nasdaq composite lost 49 points to finish at 2,268.93.

The Dow Jones industrial average plunged 204 points to close at 10,526.58.

Investors were unnerved by a sharp jump in the Consumer Price Index last month, up 0.6 percent rather than the 0.3 percent increase most analysts had anticipated. The core CPI, excluding volatile food and energy prices, rose 0.3 percent last month.

Combined with last week's stronger-than-expected Producer Price Index figures, it now appears the Federal Reserve Board will be inclined to either leave short-term interest rates unchanged next month or perhaps only cut rates by one-quarter point rather than the half-point cut some had predicted.

"We've lost the big rally that we had in January," said David Eberhart, market strategist at Optima Investment Research. "And you still have this pattern over the past six months of lower major highs and lower major lows, so there's nothing to suggest that we've put in any kind of serious bottom here."

Sun Microsystems (Nasdaq: SUNW) fell $2.63 to $19.63 after Merrill Lynch downgraded the stock. Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT) added 38 cents to $56.25 and Oracle (Nasdaq: ORCL) lost 13 cents to $23.

Sybase (Nasdaq: SYBS) shares plunged $4.56 to $19.94 after announcing it would shell out $373 million in stock to buy New Era of Networks (Nasdaq: NEON), up 38 cents to $7.31.

Intuit (Nasdaq: INTU) shot up $5.31 to $38 after it topped analysts' estimates in its latest quarter. The financial software maker also got an upgrade, and analyst reports talked up the company's potential to weather an economic downturn.

Cisco Systems (Nasdaq: CSCO) shaved off another 94 cents to close at $25.13. Nortel Networks (NYSE: NT) gained 28 cents to $19.15 and Lucent Technologies (NYSE: LU) lost 74 cents to $11.60.

Among widely held PC stocks, Dell (Nasdaq: DELL) trimmed $1.38 to $20.63, Compaq (NYSE: CPQ) clipped 30 cents to $21, Gateway (NYSE: GTW) rose 33 cents to $18.39 and Apple Computer (Nasdaq: AAPL) finished up 56 cents to $18.88.

Intel (Nasdaq: INTC) chopped off 63 cents to $30.81. Advanced Micro Devices (NYSE: AMD) picked up 44 cents to $23.01, and IBM (NYSE: IBM) lost $3.99 to $107.51.

America Online Time Warner (NYSE: AOL) shaved off 55 cents to $44.40. (Nasdaq: AMZN) slid 56 cents to $11.94. CMGI (Nasdaq: CMGI) dropped 22 cents to $4.06 and eBay (Nasdaq: EBAY) finished up $1.13 to $45.69.

ZDII staff and news wire reports contributed to this roundup.