By Jonathan Cheng and Alexandra Scaggs
Stocks continued their drop, joining a global stock selloff after a disappointing Spanish bond auction.
The Dow Jones Industrial Average slid 162 points, or 1.2%, to 13037, in midday Wednesday trading. The Standard & Poor's 500-stock index shed 18.5 points, or 1.3%, to 1395, while the Nasdaq Composite lost 60 points, or 1.9%, to 3053.
Technology stocks led the markets lower. Microsoft and Cisco Systems were among the worst performers among Dow components. Financial stocks were also weak. Bank of America and J.P. Morgan Chase were also among the biggest Dow decliners.
Spain sold just EUR2.589 billion ($3.43 billion) of bonds, at the bottom of its planned range, and at yields that were well above previous auctions.
Following the auction, yields on 10-year Spanish government debt rose to 5.705%, from 5.445% Tuesday, the highest level since Jan. 9. Stocks fell sharply. Germany's DAX index skidded 2.8%, while France's CAC-40 closed down 2.7%.
Also weighing on sentiment was a revised reading of euro-zone business activity in March, which confirmed contraction, as well as a decline in euro-zone retail sales in February.
Meanwhile, the European Central Bank left its main interest rate unchanged for the fourth straight month, as expected. In a news conference after the decision, ECB President Mario Draghi warned that risks to growth remained and any discussion of how and when the ECB will unwind its unconventional measures to fight the crisis was premature.
After Spain's bond auction, "I think the global financial community is out of patience with Spain, and frankly, with Europe in general for setting expectations at a certain level and under-delivering," said Jim Russell, chief equity strategist with US Bank Wealth Management.
Asian exchanges were also broadly lower. Japan's Nikkei Stock Average slumped 2.3%, its biggest one-day drop since Nov. 10. South Korea's Kospi Composite shed 1.5%, while China's market remained closed for a holiday.
The U.S. market selloff has come after the minutes of the latest meeting of the Federal Reserve rate-setting committee, released Tuesday, showed little evidence that the central bank was moving toward further easing.
"A lot of us are scratching our heads, because if things are strong enough that we don't need stimulus, shouldn't we be optimistic, not pessimistic? I think the U.S. economy can ride without training wheels, but clearly some market participants are afraid of that," said Jerry Webman, chief economist of OppenheimerFunds.
In U.S. economic news, 209,000 new private-sector jobs were added in March, roughly in line with expectations for an increase of 200,000 jobs. The private-sector jobs report is seen as a preview to the government employment report due Friday. This week, that government report falls on Good Friday, a day when the stock market will be closed but bond markets will be open for a half-day. Separately, a reading on service sector activity in March came in a touch below expectations.
"I think almost anything would be a suitable catalyst to bring us down a few percentage points," said US Bank's Russell. "I think the market was looking for an excuse to pause."
Crude-oil prices fell more than 2% to below $102 a barrel, while gold prices dropped more than 3% to about $1,616 a troy ounce. Silver dropped more than 6%. The dollar rose against the euro and lost ground against the yen. Treasurys rose, sending the yield on the 10-year note to 2.23%.
In corporate news, SanDisk was the worst-performing stock on the S&P 500 after the flash-memory company indicated that fiscal first-quarter revenue outlook and total gross margin would fall short of projections because of weaker-than-expected pricing and demand.
Hovnanian Enterprises tumbled after the home builder said it was selling 25 million shares of common stock to the public and plans to use some of the proceeds to pay down debt.
General Electric declined after Moody's Investors Service lowered its credit rating on the blue-chip conglomerate by one notch to Aa3 and on its financing arm by two notches to A1.
Williams Partners dropped after the company said it planned a public offering of nine million common units, representing limited-partner interests, to help fund its acquisition of Caiman Eastern Midstream.
Yahoo declined after it said it would lay off 2,000 workers and change its focus after years of flat revenue growth and declining use of some of its websites.
DDi rallied after the printed-circuit-board maker agreed to be acquired by ViaSystems Group for about $266.2 million in cash.
-By Alexandra Scaggs, Dow Jones Newswires; 212-416-4125; [email protected]