Dow Falls 170 Points as Sharp Swings Continue on Wall St.

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Wall Street remained tense Thursday, extending its huge slide as investors examined mixed economic and earnings data for clues about the economy. The Dow Jones industrials fell more than 170 points, and all the major indexes were seeing wide swings.

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In midmorning trading, the Dow fell 171.00, or 1.99 percent, to 8,406.91 after falling as much as 250. Broader stock indicators declined in jittery trading. The Standard & Poor’s 500 index fell 20.00, or 2.20 percent, to 887.84, and the Nasdaq composite index fell 26.52, or 1.63 percent, to 1,601.81.

Stocks wavered at the start of trading, seeking a direction after the previous session’s steep dive, then turned sharply lower after a disappointing report on manufacturing. Wednesday’s drop, which took the Dow down 733 points, followed a stream of bad economic news that underscored the likelihood that the country is either in a recession or will be in one — and that the downturn will be severe.

It was clear from Thursday’s trading that the market will continue having extreme reactions to any economic news.

Investors initially appeared cheered by a better-than-expected reading from the Labor Department on consumer prices. The flat reading on September’s Consumer Price Index compares with August’s 0.1 percent decline, which was the first in nearly two years. The core index, which eliminates food and energy prices, rose 0.1 percent. Economists had been expecting CPI would rise to 0.1 percent and that core CPI would increase 0.2 percent. Investors are relieved to see any economic pressures ease on consumers.

Meanwhile, a weekly snapshot of the job market showed that first-time claims for unemployment declined last week. The Labor Department said claims for unemployment benefits fell 16,000 last week to a seasonally adjusted level of 461,000 — below the 475,000 that had been anticipated. Still, total unemployment remains above economists often associate with recession.

But the Philadelphia Federal Reserve said regional manufacturing conditions weakened in October. The bank’s regional index came in at a negative 37.5 compared with a positive 3.8 for September.

Investors also were reviewing Citigroup Inc. third-quarter results. The bank posted its fourth straight quarterly loss due to credit-related troubles and cut another 11,000 jobs. The company said it lost $2.8 billion, in the third quarter compared with a profit of $2.2 billion a year earlier. The loss was narrower than Wall Street had expected. Citigroup fell 90 cents, or 5.5 percent, to $15.33.

Merrill Lynch & Co., which recently agreed to be acquired by Citigroup Inc. rival Bank of America Corp., early Thursday posted a net loss of $5.1 billion. The loss was wider than analyst forecasts. Merrill fell 41 cents, or 2.3 percent, to $17.83.

United Technologies Corp. said its third-quarter earnings rose 6 percent following increased profits at Otis elevator, Sikorsky Aircraft and its other businesses. The manufacturer’s results came in ahead of Wall Street’s forecast and UTC raised the low end of its 2008 profit forecast. UTC fell 44 cents to $48.81.

Because of investors’ great anxiety about the economy, Wall Street is expected to remain extremely volatile, as it has been over the past month since the credit markets began tightening and stocks plunged. The gyrations this week have been particularly intense, with the Dow industrials soaring 936 points Monday and falling 733 Wednesday following a weak report on retail sales and a disheartening assessment of the economy from the Federal Reserve.

In Asian trading, Hong Kong’s Hang Seng Index lost 4.8 percent, and Japan’s Nikkei index dropped 11.41 percent, following the pattern of trading in the U.S. In afternoon trading in Europe, Britain’s FTSE 100 fell 2.07 percent, Germany’s DAX index fell 1.15 percent, and France‘s CAC-40 fell 2.04 percent.

While the credit markets are performing better than they were last week given several unprecedented actions by governments around the world — including the decision to buy stakes in private banks — they are hardly operating normally.

Treasury bills, considered the safest assets around, remained in demand. The three-month Treasury bill on Thursday was yielding 0.25 percent, higher than 0.20 percent on Wednesday. The yield on the benchmark 10-year Treasury note, which moves opposite its price, fell to 3.97 percent from 3.98 percent late Wednesday.

The dollar was mixed against other major currencies.

Light, sweet crude for November delivery fell 49 cents to $74.05 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange. On Wednesday, crude dropped $4.09 to settle at $74.54, the lowest closing level since Aug. 31, 2007.

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