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Stocks swoon as worries about the economy return

GRIM signals about consumer spending ripped through the markets yesterday, sending US stocks tumbling as investors raced for safe havens.

The Standard & Poor's 500 index and the Nasdaq composite index ended with losses for October, breaking a streak of seven straight months of gains. The Dow Jones industrial average tumbled 250 points, erasing a 200-point gain Thursday and ending the month flat.

Drops in key barometers of the health of consumers - what they're spending, what they're earning and how they're feeling - fanned worries that an economic recovery celebrated by the market only a day earlier won't last.

The Dow fell 249.85, or 2.5 percent, to 9,712.73. It ended October with a meager gain of 0.005 percent.

The broader Standard & Poor's 500 index fell 29.92, or 2.8 percent, to 1,036.19, and the Nasdaq composite index dropped 52.44, or 2.5 percent, to 2,045.11.

The heaviest selling yesterday came in areas that have been stalwarts of the market's powerful rally since March: financials, technology, energy and industrials. The safest areas, like health care, consumer staples and utilities, fared better.

Investors fled to safer assets like the dollar and Treasurys.

Bank stocks were hardest hit as investors worried about the fate of commercial lender CIT Group Inc. Billionaire investor and bondholder Carl Icahn agreed to support the company's restructuring plan and provide it with a $1 billion line of credit, but investors are still worried that the company could file for bankruptcy protection. The stock tumbled 24 percent.

Six stocks fell for every one that rose on the New York Stock Exchange, a virtual reversal of the tide that swept stocks higher Thursday when the government said the economy grew faster than expected in the summer.

Indicators of investor skittishness surged. The Chicago Board Options Exchange's Volatility Index, known as the market's fear gauge, soared nearly 25 percent to its highest level since July.

Stocks began skidding after the Labor Department said personal spending fell 0.5 percent in September. The drop was in line with forecasts, but it was also the largest slide in nine months and followed a 1.3 percent jump in August fueled by the government's popular Cash for Clunkers car rebate program.

The government also said that personal income, the fuel for future spending, was flat in September compared with the previous month.

A drop in the mood of consumers added to the day's bad news. The Reuters/University of Michigan consumer sentiment index fell to 70.6 in October from 73.5 in September. The reading was revised higher from an early estimate and was roughly in line with expectations.

"Until we get to better employment numbers, it's hard to get real income growth and real spending ... and we're just not there yet," said Kurt Karl, chief US economist at Swiss Re.

Yesterday was the end of the fiscal year for many mutual funds. Fund managers often sell some investments to minimize taxes for shareholders.

Bond prices surged, pushing their yields lower. The yield on the benchmark 10-year Treasury note fell to 3.39 percent from 3.50 percent late Thursday.

Stocks have fallen for most of the past week as worries about the economy escalated. Without stronger evidence that the labor market is improving and consumers are feeling more comfortable about spending, investors will likely have trouble extending the market's gains.

"I think you have a market that is ultimately looking for its direction," said Bob Froehlich, senior managing director at Hartford Financial Services. "We really are at the inflection point. You tend to have an overreaction to both extremes."

Trading is likely to remain volatile in the coming week amid a flood of major economic news, including the Institute of Supply Management's readings on the manufacturing and services industries, sales reports from major retailers and the Labor Department's October employment report - arguably the month's most important piece of economic data. The Federal Reserve will also convene for a two-day policy meeting beginning Tuesday.

Volume at the New York Stock Exchange came to 1.7 billion shares compared with 1.6 billion Thursday.

In other trading, the Russell 2000 index of smaller companies fell 17.45, or 3 percent, to 562.77.


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