Stocks suffered their biggest losses of the year Tuesday as a sell-off spread west from Europe ahead of a critical deadline in the Greek debt crisis. The Dow Jones industrial average fell more than 200 points.
The Dow has not closed down more than 100 points this year, and its biggest decline during a trading day had been 159 points, on Jan. 13. It fell sharply from the opening bell Tuesday and was down as much as 212.
Just after 2 p.m. EST, the Dow was down 201 points, or 1.5 percent, at 12,761. The Standard & Poor's 500 index was down 21 points at 1,343, and the Nasdaq composite index was down 42 points at 2,908.
Stocks fell more than 3 percent in Germany, Spain and France, and 1.9 percent in Britain. Greece stepped up pressure on private investors to swap their Greek government bonds for replacements with a lower face value and interest rate.
Major banks and investment funds have signed on for the swap, but it remains unclear whether hedge funds, which had already bought the bonds at a steep discount and may profit from bond insurance payouts if Greece defaults, will agree. The deadline is Thursday.
The swap is vital for Greece to cut its debt and get a bailout of €130 billion, or $172 billion, from other countries and the International Monetary Fund. Without the bailout, Greece could default on its debt later this month and rattle markets around the world.
In the U.S., worries about Greece come on top of concerns about a recession in Europe and slowing economic growth in China. Some investors also believe the rally in U.S. stocks this year — the Standard & Poor's 500 is up almost 7 percent — has come too far too fast.
The Dow has not closed down 100 points in 45 straight trading sessions, the longest streak since 2006. On Tuesday, all but two of the 30 stocks that make up the average, Kraft Foods and McDonald's, declined as the Dow appeared ready to break the streak.
Caterpillar, which makes heavy equipment and depends heavily on China for profits, fell 4 percent, the worst of the Dow 30. All 10 industry groups in the S&P 500 were lower, with materials stocks and banks leading the decline.
Bill Stone, chief investment strategist for PNC Wealth Management, called Tuesday's decline "fairly rational," considering how much the market has climbed and the economic worries in Greece and the rest of Europe.
"You need the pullback to give people opportunities to want to get involved again," Stone said.
Oil prices slipped $1.56 to $105.16 per barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange. New York crude has risen from $96 last month amid fears of a disruption in global oil supplies driven by the potential for military conflict with Iran.
The price of gold fell $32 per ounce, or 2.1 percent, to $1,672 per ounce. Silver, platinum and copper all fell more than 2 percent because of concerns about Europe and weaker economic demand in China.
"Global growth fears now are hitting home, and we're seeing selling across the board," said Matt Zeman, a market analyst for Kingsview Financial.
Yields on U.S. government debt also fell as investors moved their money into what they perceive to be a safer asset. The yield on the benchmark 10-year Treasury note fell to 1.95 percent from 2.01 percent late Monday. Bond yields fall when their prices rise.
Among stocks making big moves:
— Weight loss company Nutrisystem Inc. fell 11 percent after it reported a bigger-than-expected fourth-quarter loss and a disappointing outlook.
— General Motors fell 5.7 percent after saying it will pay €304 million, or $402 million, for a 7 percent stake in Peugeot, which will make it the French carmaker's second-largest shareholder after the Peugeot family.
— VeriFone Systems Inc. rose 6.8 percent after the maker of electronic payment systems predicted a bigger-than-expected 2012 profit.
— Apple fell 1 percent one day before the expected release of its iPad 3 tablet computer.
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