Merger plans on hold.

Fears of a conflict in Syria rippled across financial markets Tuesday, sinking stocks, lifting gold and pushing oil to the highest price in a year and a half.

The possibility of U.S. military strikes raised worries that energy trade in the region could be disrupted, raising fuel costs for consumers and business.

The Dow Jones industrial average fell 170.33, or 1.1 percent, to 14,776.13, the lowest in two months. The S&P 500 lost 26.30, or 1.6 percent, to 1,630.48. The Nasdaq fell 79.05, or 2.2 percent, to 3,578.52.

Oil surged $3.09, or 2.9 percent, to close at $109.01 a barrel. Gold rose $27, or 2 percent, to $1,420 an ounce.

Americans’ confidence in the economy inched closer to its highest level since January 2008 on growing optimism that hiring and wages could pick up in coming months.

The Conference Board, a private research group, said Tuesday that its consumer confidence index rose to 81.5 in August. That’s up from a revised reading of 81 in July.

Although consumers were more confident about the future, their assessment of the current economy dipped slightly in August.

U.S. home prices rose 12.1 percent in June from a year earlier, nearly matching a seven-year high. But month-over-month price gains slowed in most markets, a sign that higher mortgage rates may weigh on the housing recovery.

The Standard & Poor’s/Case-Shiller 20-city home price index slowed only marginally from May’s year-over-year gain of 12.2 percent, the fastest since March 2006. And all 20 major cities posted gains from the previous month and compared with a year ago.

Most economists expect the overall index to slow to single digits which they see as a more sustainable pace.

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J.C. Penney’s biggest investor, William Ackman, plans to sell his entire stake in the struggling department store operator for about $504.4 million — a loss of around $470 million from what he paid for it.

The move comes two weeks after Ackman resigned from J.C. Penney’s board as part of a deal to resolve an u public battle between the activist investor and the retailer.

Pershing Square Capital Management’s Ackman disclosed in a filing late Monday it was going to sell his nearly 39.1 million shares. On Tuesday, Ackman said that the shares will be priced at $12.90 each, 3 percent below Monday’s $13.35 closing price.

The U.S. government wants to wait until March for a trial on its lawsuit aimed at blocking the merger of American Airlines and US Airways, a deal that would create the world’s biggest airline.

The airlines want to start the trial in November. They had hoped to close the deal next month, but that was before the Justice Department and six states filed the case this month.

Justice said Tuesday that given the stakes in the merger, it needs until March 3 to prepare for trial. It accused the airlines of rushing the case.

Sprint is eliminating about 800 customer service jobs because fewer people are calling its centers, the company said Tuesday. With growth in other parts of the business, Sprint said it expects the company’s workforce to remain at about 40,000.

Sprint said most affected workers were notified Thursday. Others will be told next month after Sprint figures out which additional positions will be cut. The cuts are at various U.S. locations.

Wire reports

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