A growing sense that Europe's leaders have failed to contain that region's debt crisis swept through financial markets Wednesday.
It started with the euro dropping below $1.30 for the first time since January and a jump in borrowing costs for Italian government debt. By the end of the trading day the Dow had lost 131 points, European stock indexes fell as much as 3 percent and gold dropped $76, ending below $1,600 an ounce for the first time in more than two months.
Investors dumped assets that might be seen as risky and piled into the most conservative ones around: the dollar and U.S. government debt.
The market appears to be in "sell now and ask questions later mode," said John Canally, investment strategist at LPL Financial.
Since European leaders reached an agreement to rein in future government budget deficits last week, investors and credit rating agencies have criticized the deal for failing to address current problems. "Markets are impatient," Canally said. "They still can't see how all these efforts will get this situation stabilized."
Italy had to pay higher borrowing rates in its last bond auction of the year Wednesday. The euro zone's third-largest economy paid 6.47 percent interest to borrow euro3 billion ($3.95 billion) for five years, up from 6.30 percent just a month ago. The higher rates make it more expensive for Italy to borrow money and reflect rising doubts that the country will be able to repay its debts.
The Dow Jones industrial average fell 131.46 points, or 1.1 percent, to close at 11,823.48. Caterpillar Inc. fell 4.4 percent, the worst drop among the 30 stocks in the Dow.
Canally said the fear that another bank failure will lead to a financial crisis like Lehman Brothers did in 2008 overshadows everything else, he said. Markets are so jittery now that traders see a slight drop in the euro or a small rise in Italian government bond yields as a step toward a wider collapse.
The Standard & Poor's 500 index fell 13.91 points, or 1.1 percent, to 1,211.82. The Nasdaq fell 39.96, or 1.6 percent to 2,539.31.
Gold dropped 4.6 percent to settle at $1,586, the lowest closing price since July. Commodity prices tend to fall when the dollar gains strength, since a stronger dollar makes it more expensive for investors using other currencies to buy commodities, which are priced in dollars.
The yield on the 10-year Treasury note dropped to 1.91 percent from 1.96 percent late Tuesday as demand increased for ultrasafe assets. High demand for U.S. government debt helped the government sell $13 billion in 30-year bonds at a record low rate of 2.92 percent. In a note to clients, strategists at Nomura said "the insatiable appetite" for Treasurys at such low yields implies that bond buyers are readying themselves for "the end-of-the-euro-trade."
The dollar also rose against other currencies. The euro shed about a penny against the dollar to $1.29 and has now lost 3 percent in three days.
European markets fell broadly. Germany's DAX dropped 1.7 percent; France's main stock index lost 3.3 percent.
Energy stocks led the U.S. stock market lower after the price of crude oil lost $5 to $94.95 a barrel. Apache Corp. shed 5 percent and Chevron Corp 2.9 percent.
First Solar Inc. plunged 21 percent, the biggest drop in the S&P 500, after the country's largest solar company slashed its earnings estimate for the year. The solar industry has been hit hard by slower economic growth around the world and as government funding for alternative energy projects has dried up.
Avon jumped 5 percent, the largest gain in the S&P 500. The company announced late Tuesday that its CEO, Andrea Jung, will step down. The cosmetics company has been struggling with erratic financial results and is under scrutiny by regulators.
The Dow is now down 3 percent for the week, while S&P has lost 3.5 percent. The Nasdaq is down 4 percent.