Persistent questions about the ability of European leaders to prevent a breakup of the euro are taking a hefty toll on the commodities that keep industries churning out products and help feed the world.
Commodity prices dropped across the board Wednesday. Oil fell 5.2 percent. Gold fell to a level not seen since July, and corn ended the day at the lowest price in about a year.
Worries about Europe's debt problems resurfaced after Italy's borrowing rates rose. That caused the euro to weaken and the dollar to strengthen. Commodities are priced in dollars, so a stronger dollar makes them more expensive for buyers using other currencies.
Traders are worried about future demand for commodities as Europe's crisis remains unresolved and China's economic slowdown deepens. The Federal Reserve dashed hopes for more steps to stimulate the U.S. economy Tuesday, which some traders had anticipated.
Analysts said many traders sold commodities futures to make up for losses in other markets, while buying relatively low-risk assets like dollars and Treasurys. Volume was lighter than normal ahead of the holidays, which can make price swings more exaggerated.
"The dollar strength is obviously having a dramatic effect on commodities across the board," Kingsview Financial analyst Matt Zeman said. "You have that. You have concern over European banks and add holiday volume to that mix and you're going to get these kinds of days."
In metals trading, gold for February delivery fell $76.20, or 4.6 percent, to end at $1,586.90 an ounce. It was the first time gold dropped below $1,600 an ounce since September and the lowest level since July.
The drop in industrial metals was attributed primarily to concerns about future demand because they are used in a wide variety of products from construction to consumer products. George Gero, vice president at RBC Global Futures, speculated that demand will pick up for such metals as copper next year as Japan rebuilds after its devastating earthquake and as other countries begin infrastructure projects.
In March contracts, silver fell $2.325, or 7.4 percent, to finish at $28.935 an ounce. Copper fell 16.3 cents, or 4.7 percent, to end at $3.2785 per pound and palladium fell $44.55, or 6.7 percent, to $619.60 an ounce. January platinum declined $66 to end at $1,426.30 an ounce.
Energy contracts all fell. Benchmark crude declined $5.19 to finish at $94.95 per barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange. Heating oil fell 9.89 cents to $2.8299 per gallon, gasoline futures declined 12.17 cents to $2.5037 per gallon and natural gas ended down 14.3 cents or $3.136 per 1,000 cubic feet.
March wheat fell 19.75 cents to finish at $5.8075 per bushel, March corn fell 13.75 cents to $5.8075 per bushel and January soybeans fell 18.5 cents to $11 per bushel.