What began as a weak day in the stock markets ended in the worst rout in more than two years, as investors dumped stocks amid anxiety that both Europe and the United States were failing to fix deepening economic problems.
With a steep decline of around 5 percent in the United States on Thursday, stocks have now fallen nearly 11 percent in two weeks. Markets have been plunging as investors sought safer havens for their money — including Treasury bonds, which some had been avoiding during the debate over extending the nation’sdebt ceiling.
Sparking the drop was an unsuccessful effort by the European Central Bank to reassure the markets, which instead ended up spooking investors. The bank intervened with a show of support to buy bonds of some smaller countries, but not Italy and Spain, whose mounting troubles have come into the spotlight. This was taken as a sign that the recent rescue packages by Europe could soon be overwhelmed by the huge debt burdens in those two countries.
Investors were further unnerved by a candid remark by José Manuel Barroso, the European Commission president, who seemed to confirm fears about the sense of political paralysis. Rather than play down the problems, as European officials have done since the debt crisis began last year, he said, “Markets remain to be convinced that we are taking the appropriate steps to resolve the crisis.”
With investors in the United States already focusing anew on fragile economic growth and high unemployment, waves of selling of stocks began in Europe and continued throughout the day in the United States. Analysts said the market still might have further to fall, as investors reassess the dimming economic prospects. In the short run, attention will be focused on critical unemployment numbers for July to be released on Friday morning. And some in the markets are already questioning whether the Federal Reserve has done enough to mend the economy and whether it could soon take further steps to stimulate growth.
On Thursday, more than 14 billion shares changed hands, the heaviest selling in more than a year. In addition to being unnerved by weaker economic data reported in recent days, investors appeared to lose their optimism about the strength of corporate profits that had driven increases in the stock market in the first half of this year.
At the close, the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index was down 60.27 points, or 4.78 percent, to 1,200.07. The Dow Jones industrial average was off 512.76 points, or 4.31 percent, to 11,383.68, and the Nasdaq was down 136.68, or 5.08 percent, to 2,556.39.
The S.& P. 500 has now fallen 10.7 percent from 1,345 on July 22, underlining the new negative investment sentiment about the economy and about Europe.
“We are now in correction mode,” said Sam Stovall, chief investment strategist at Standard & Poor’s. “We could have another couple of weeks to go before it bottoms.”