By Jonathan Cheng
U.S. stocks tumbled in the final hour of trading, capping a volatile day of trading dominated by a surge in oil prices and a series of headlines on the European debt crisis.
The Dow Jones Industrial Average finished a rocky session down 190.57 points, or 1.58%, at 11905.59, for its second decline in three days. The Standard & Poor's 500-stock index finished down 20.89 points, or 1.66%, at 1236.92, while the Nasdaq Composite lost 46.59 points, or 1.73%, to 2639.61.
Weighing most heavily on stocks were financial companies, which were weak all day but plunged after a ratings-agency report on U.S. banks' exposure to a worsening European debt crisis. Morgan Stanley dropped $1.27 a share, or 8%, to $14.66 a share and Goldman Sachs Group lost 4.15, or 4.2%, to 95.60 while J.P. Morgan Chase and Bank of America each declined by 3.8%.
The session saw the blue-chip Dow fall by 139 points shortly after the open, as investors fretted about rising sovereign debt yields in Europe and crude-oil prices that topped $100 a barrel for the first time since June. By the mid-afternoon, investors had clawed back all of those declines on hopes of more aggressive central bank intervention to prop up global debt markets. But in the final hour of trading, investors were rattled by the Fitch report, and signs of gridlock on the U.S.'s efforts to slash its deficit.
The late-hour decline was also attributed by some traders as tied to a comment by Texas Republican House member Jeb Hensarling, who was quoted saying that talks on the congressional joint supercommittee to reduce the deficit had stalled ahead of its Nov. 23 deadline.
"It's a combination of the Fitch commentary and the stall in the supercommittee," said Michael Marrale, head of U.S. sales trading at RBC Capital Markets. "I was under the impression that there's a sense of urgency to make something happen after the credit downgrade over the summer, but a lot of this is going to be politics as usual, and it looks like it'll take some time to work itself out. I don't think it should be a real surprise, but it just shows how fragile the markets are."
Mr. Marrale added: "I don't expect any respite from this volatility in the near future."
A source of relative strength were energy stocks, after U.S. crude-oil futures prices surged to a five-month high of $102.59 a barrel on news that refiners in the key U.S. Gulf Coast region will be getting better access to benchmark West Texas Intermediate crude. Better access means demand is likely to increase.
In Europe, the Stoxx Europe 600 erased strong early gains to finish flat. Early optimism faded after Bank of England Governor Mervyn King said the U.K.'s economy could be flat until the middle of next year, while U.K. unemployment rose to 8.3% in October, the highest since 1996.
At the same time, the European Central Bank bought Italian, Spanish and Portuguese government bonds, bringing yields down and lending support to European shares. Even so, the yield on the Italian 10-year government bond remained stubbornly high, trading above 7%--a level near which other European countries have had to seek bailouts--before finishing at 6.992%. France's bond yield fell to 3.698%, from 3.75% earlier in the day. Spain's bond yield, however, rose to 6.378% after falling to low as 6.25% following the ECB buying earlier in the day.
With Italian government yields breaching the 7% level that many investors consider dangerous, investors took hope in suggestions that the European Central Bank and the Fed will coordinate their actions to support asset prices. Those hopes powered some of Wednesday's early-afternoon rally.
Asian markets were also broadly lower on euro-zone worries. China's Shanghai Composite shed 2.5%, and Japan's Nikkei Stock Average was down 0.9%.
Gold futures slipped to $1,773.80 per troy ounce, while the dollar gained on the euro and slipped against the yen. U.S. Treasurys rose, pushing the yield on the benchmark 10-year Treasury note down to 2.023%.
In U.S. economic news, consumer prices fell 0.1% in October, while so-called core inflation, which excludes energy and food costs, rose by 0.1%. Economists had forecast no change in the headline number, and a 0.1% gain in the core figure.
Industrial production climbed 0.7% in October, exceeding expectations, though September's figure was revised downward. Capacity utilization rose to 77.8%, from 77.3% in September, according to the Federal Reserve. Meanwhile, the National Association of Home Builders reported its strongest reading on the housing market since May 2010.
In corporate news, shares of Dell fell 50 cents, or 3.2%, to 15.13 after the computer maker beat third-quarter earnings estimates but missed on revenue. It also warned that full-year revenue was likely to come in at the lower end of a previously forecast range.
Abercrombie & Fitch slumped 7.60, or 14%, to 48.10 to lead the S&P 500 decliners. The apparel retailer's quarterly earnings fell short of expectations because of higher average unit costs and greater uncertainty about the macroeconomic environment.
Tyco International gained 1.20, or 2.6%, to 46.99 after the diversified industrial company reported better-than-anticipated fiscal fourth-quarter earnings and revenue.
Agilent Technologies gained 33 cents, or 0.9%, to 38.58 after revenue and margins improved, though fourth-quarter profit slipped 1% as charges weighed on the maker of testing and measurement equipment.
Autodesk rose 1.54, or 4.5%, to 35.58 after third-quarter profits beat expectations. Cost controls helped boost margins amid strong revenue growth in all of its main markets.
Research in Motion gained eight cents, or 0.4%, to 19.21 after Goldman Sachs raised its recommendation on the stock to "hold," from "sell," citing the stock's low valuation.