News that economic growth slowed during the spring gave the stock market a fitting end to a choppy July - yet another back-and-forth day.
The Dow Jones industrial average, down almost 120 points in the first minutes of trading, recovered and briefly showed a gain before falling 44 points in mid-afternoon. The other major indexes also fell. Traders also opted for the safety of Treasury bonds, and that sent interest rates lower.
But stocks were on track for their strongest month in a year. The Dow was up 7.1 percent going into Friday's trading.
The Commerce Department said the gross domestic product, the broadest measure of the economy, grew at an annual pace of 2.4 percent from April to June. That's less than the 2.5 percent economists polled by Thomson Reuters had forecast.
At first the report confirmed investors' belief that the recovery is weakening as unemployment remains high and government stimulus programs end. Consumers cut back on their spending because of job worries and companies spent less to rebuild inventories.
But analysts said that as investors read deeper into the report, it didn't look as bad as they initially thought. They found some good news in consumers' savings rate.
"The consumer actually decided to save more," Jason Pride, director of investment strategy at Glenmeade, an investment management company. "Consumers have done more to repair their balance sheets than thought."
Pride said that means that those extra savings will eventually be spent, giving the economy a lift. Consumer spending accounts for the bulk of economic activity.
Business spending on equipment and software jumped in the second quarter by the biggest amount in 13 years. That was encouraging, analysts said, because it means companies are eventually going to start adding jobs.
"Companies are spending and eventually it will turn into employment," said Ron Weiner, president and CEO at RDM Financial Group.
It wasn't surprising that stocks gave up their gains and turned lower. Trading has been erratic as weak economic numbers have conflicted with companies' generally good second-quarter earnings and forecasts for the rest of the year. Investors have been quick to cash in their gains because they don't have a sense of where the market is headed.
In afternoon trading, the Dow Jones industrial average fell 43.75, or 0.4 percent, to 10,423.18. The Standard & Poor's 500 index fell 4.14, or 0.4 percent, to 1,097.39, while the Nasdaq composite index fell 5.10, or 0.2 percent, to 2,246.59.
Falling stocks slightly outpaced those that rose on the New York Stock Exchange where volume came to 450.1 million shares.
Volume was extremely light even for a summer day. That continued a trend that has been seen for much of July. Analysts say many investors, uncertain about the where the market is heading, are staying on the sidelines or moving money into safer alternatives.
That strategy sent Treasurys higher Friday. The yield on the 10-year Treasury note, which moves opposite its prices, fell to 2.91 percent from 2.99 percent. Its yield is often used as a benchmark for interest rates on mortgages and other consumer loans. A yield below 3 percent suggests investors are worried about long-term growth and don't fear inflation will be a problem anytime soon. Inflation is a threat to the long-term value of bonds.
Investors got some mildly good news from two other economic reports. The University of Michigan/Reuters consumer sentiment index for July rose slightly more than expected to 67.8 from a preliminary reading of 66.5. Economists expected it to rise to 67.
And the Chicago Purchasing Managers Index, which measures manufacturing activity in the Midwest, rose unexpectedly to 62.3 this month from 59.1 in June. Economists were expecting a drop to 56.5. The report is seen as an indicator of how the Institute for Supply Management's nationwide index is likely to come in when it's released on Monday.
Traders were also being cautious because they're waiting for a series of key reports next week that will give a first look at how the economy is doing in the current quarter. The Institute for Supply Management releases its reports on the manufacturing and services sectors during July and the Labor Department issues its report on employment for this month.
Economists predict the two ISM reports will show manufacturing and the services industry expanded in July but at a slower pace than in June.
Meanwhile, the unemployment rate likely inched higher to 9.6 percent in July from 9.5 percent in June as the government laid off more temporary census workers. Private employers likely added 90,000 jobs during the month, slightly better than in June.
Overseas markets mostly fell Friday after reports that Spain's credit rating is likely to be cut by Moody's Investors Service. The potential downgrade comes as the country's unemployment rate jumped to a 13-year high of 20.09 percent and the government continues to grapple with rising debt problems.
Spain's IBEX 35 fell 1.2 percent. Britain's FTSE 100 fell 1.1 percent, Germany's DAX index rose 0.2 percent, and France's CAC-40 fell 0.2 percent. Japan's Nikkei stock average fell 1.6 percent.