Stocks head lower day after big gains

Tuesday , March 18, 2014 - 12:32 PM

Christina Rexrode

NEW YORK— Stocks reversed course and headed lower early Wednesday on concerns about the European debt crisis after a couple of days of mostly strong returns.

The Dow Jones industrial average fell as much as 86 points in the opening minutes of trading, a sharp U-turn from Tuesday’s gain of 194 points, its second-biggest gain of the year so far. It was down 48 points to 13,068 around 10 a.m.

The Standard & Poor’s 500 fell three points to 1,388 and the Nasdaq composite index fell two points to 3,041.

News out of Europe had sent stocks up the day before after Spain held a successful sale of two-year bonds. The goodwill died down Wednesday. Spain reported that the proportion of bad loans at its banks has risen to an 18-year high. Its benchmark stock index fell 3.2 percent.

There were also reminders of how difficult it will be to untangle the continent’s debt crisis, with so many competing forces to be pleased. A Dutch bank refused to give a break to Greece’s Hellenic Railway Organization and Athens’ metro on money they owe, underscoring that Greece is far from rescued.

In Germany, there was strong interest in a sale of 2-year government bonds. That could be construed as good news for Germany, but it’s also a sign that investors are nervous about the region’s economy. People tend to shore up their money in bonds when they don’t have much confidence in stocks.

The Bank of England hinted that it doesn’t plan to extend its bond-buying program, which pumps money into the economy and is meant to lift stock prices. Similar revelations from the Federal Reserve in the U.S. have also sent markets down this month.

While U.S. stocks advanced steadily for the first three months of the year, the young second quarter has been far more volatile. In the 11 trading days since it started, the Dow has fallen by triple digits four times — four of the five worst days of the year so far. It has risen by triple digits twice, its second- and third-best days of the year so far.

Among stocks making big moves:

— Halliburton, the oil services company, rose nearly 4 percent after posting a 23 percent jump in first-quarter profits.

— IBM fell more than 2 percent after reporting late Tuesday that revenue in the first quarter had been flat.

— Yahoo rose nearly 3 percent after reporting late Tuesday that it had notched a year-over-year increase in quarterly revenue for the first time since 2008.

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