Wall Street fell for a third day on Tuesday on fears Europe still has failed to tackle its debt crisis, prompting worries the market is headed to new lows for the year.
Investors channeled cash into less risky assets as doubts resurfaced over the political will of Italy and Greece to push through tough budget measures and as Germany hardened its stand against providing more aid. The worries over the European debt crisis renewed fears that the global economy could fall into recession.
The S&P 500 is now down 14.5 percent from its highest point in 2011, reached at the end of April. Though investors have periodically taken heart from signs that Europe has carved out a plan to deal with its festering crisis, confidence has been repeatedly walloped every time there is a development showing that the problems have not been solved.
"We have got a shot at trading the S&P under 1,100 again," said Nick Kalivas, an equity index analyst at MF Global in Chicago. "I don't sense that people are really going to defend the market until something like that occurs."
A similar pattern of fractured confidence exists in bank stocks. Major U.S. banks were among the biggest decliners on Tuesday, with the KBW Bank index off nearly 2 percent. Late on Friday, the Federal Housing Finance Agency sued 17 large U.S. banks over subprime mortgage-backed bonds, compounding fears about the health of the sector.
JPMorgan and Bank of America, both subjects of the suit, fell more than 3 percent on Tuesday.
The CBOE Volatility Index, or Vix, a measure of expected market turbulence, posted its biggest gain in nearly two weeks, climbing 9.4 percent to 37.08.
"Right now there is a tremendous amount of uncertainty," said Michael Sheldon, chief market strategist at RDM Financial in Westport, Connecticut. "There is a decent chance that we are in a bear market."
The Dow Jones industrial average dropped 100.96 points, or 0.90 percent, to 11,139.30. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index fell 8.73 points, or 0.74 percent, to 1,165.24. The Nasdaq Composite Index lost 6.50 points, or 0.26 percent, to 2,473.83.
Traders are monitoring lows set by major global indexes during the selloff in the first half of August. So far, only Germany's DAX, down nearly 25 percent this year, and Japan's Nikkei have fallen below those levels.
The S&P 500 hit a 2011 low of 1,101 on August 9.
European shares extended losses on Tuesday, after falling more than 4 percent on Monday, hitting their lowest close in more than two years on worries the euro zone debt crisis was deteriorating. The PHLX Europe sector index slumped 3.5 percent. U.S.-listed shares of Credit Suisse fell 12.9 percent to $23.84.
Gold stocks got a lift as the price of gold jumped to a record high above $1,920 after Switzerland pegged its currency to the euro in an effort to prevent its rapid appreciation in an extended spat of safe-haven buying. The precious metal then retreated 2 percent from that level as investors took profits.
The Arca Gold Bugs index, which measures the performance of 16 U.S.-listed gold miners, rose 0.6 percent. Eldorado Gold Corp was the biggest percentage gainer, up 2.4 percent to $21.36.
The Financial Times reported several big U.S. banks, in talks with state officials on settling claims of improper mortgage practices, were offered a deal to limit legal liability in return for a multibillion-dollar payment.
Several brokerages including Nomura cut their price targets on big lenders.
Bank of America Corp lost 3.6 percent to $6.99 and JPMorgan Chase & Co fell 3.4 percent to $33.44.
Among gainers, Sunoco Inc rose 5.3 percent to $38.03 after the energy company said it plans to exit its refining business and focus on its logistics operations.
Packaging company Temple-Inland Inc jumped 25 percent to $30.85 after International Paper Co agreed to buy it for $32 per share. International Paper rose 8.9 percent to $27.77.
Trading volume was lower than usual at 7.9 billion shares on the New York Stock Exchange, the American Stock Exchange and Nasdaq.
Decliners beat advancers by nearly than three-to-one on the New York Stock Exchange. On Nasdaq, decliners beat advancers by about two-to-one.
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