The stock market had another late-day slide, this time because of fears that the Gulf oil spill will threaten BP's dividend and perhaps land the company in bankruptcy court.
The Dow Jones industrials, up about 125 points late Wednesday morning, closed down 41. Most selling came in the last hour, the third time in four days that stocks had a late-day drop.
Investors got a "sell" signal from news reports that raised the possibility of worsening financial fallout from the oil spill. A group of about 30 U.S. lawmakers sent a letter to BP CEO Tony Hayward asking him to halt dividend payments and advertising until the leaking well is capped and the spill is cleaned up. Investors tend to sell any time a company's dividend appears to be in jeopardy. BP is scheduled to make a $2.63 billion payout on June 21.
And Fortune.com quoted an analyst as saying BP could be forced to seek bankruptcy protection within about a month.
The worries about BP were enough to make investors shrug off reassuring words about the economy early in the day from Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke. BP fell 15.8 percent and selling spread to other energy companies. Anadarko Petroleum Corp., a part-owner of the rig that caused the spill, dropped 18.6 percent.
The slide in energy stocks halted the market's upward momentum, said Peter Boockvar, equity strategist at Miller Tabak.
"The oil stocks are getting killed. They're widely owned so anytime you see that kind of activity it makes people nervous," Boockvar said.
The drop came a day after the Dow climbed 123 points on easing concerns that the economy would fall back into recession. The confidence extended into the first part of trading Wednesday, lifting the Dow back above 10,000, after Bernanke said debt problems in Europe might only amount to a "modest" drag on the U.S. economy if the financial markets can halt their slide.
He told the House Budget Committee that the economy is getting better but that job growth is likely to remain weak. The enthusiasm over his testimony faded after speculation arose that BP might not be able to recover from the oil spill.
Many traders have been anxious since last month that problems from the Gulf spill to spending cuts in Europe would slow the economic recovery. The concerns have pounded U.S. stocks since they set 2010 highs in late April. They are down more than 10 percent since then, a drop that's known as a "correction."
David Chalupnik, head of equities at First American Funds in Minneapolis, said it's most likely that Bernanke is right that the economy will continue to recover but that trading will remain choppy. He said traders won't get a better sense about how the economy is holding up until July when earnings reports and more economic numbers come out.
"We're probably in the fifth inning of the correction. Maybe the sixth inning," Chalupnik said. "The next month, I think, is just going to be extremely volatile."
The Dow fell 40.73, or 0.4 percent, to 9,899.25 after trading as high as 10,065.14. It is down 1,306 points, or 11.7 percent, from its 2010 high of 11,205, reached April 26.
The Standard & Poor's 500 index fell 6.31, or 0.6 percent, to 1,055.69, while the Nasdaq composite index fell 11.72, or 0.5 percent, to 2,158.85.
Despite the drop in major indexes, advancing stocks narrowly outpaced those that fell on the New York Stock Exchange. Trading volume came to 1.7 billion shares, up from 1.6 billion Tuesday.
The late selling sent traders back into the safety of Treasurys. That pushed interest rates lower. The yield on the benchmark 10-year Treasury note slipped to 3.18 percent from 3.19 percent late Tuesday.
Gold prices retreated Wednesday after setting a record high a day earlier. Gold fell $15.70 to $1,229.90 an ounce. It rose as high as $1,254.40 an ounce on Tuesday.
Crude oil rose $2.39 to $74.38 per barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange.
The drop in stocks accelerated after the euro dipped below $1.20, said Michael O'Rourke, chief market strategist at institutional broker dealer BTIG LLC in New York.
The 16-nation currency has been under pressure on worries about Europe's growth prospects and the economic effects of deep cuts in government spending there. Investors are worried that could undercut U.S. economic recovery.
"We've been very much tethered to the euro. Every time it goes lower, our equity market turns lower," O'Rourke said.
The market's slump overshadowed a Fed report that the U.S. economy strengthened in all 12 of the central bank's regions. That hasn't happened since before the recession began in December 2007. Manufacturing, retail sales and tourism improved, while demand for housing rose because of the homebuyer tax credit that expired at the end of April. The Beige Book survey precedes the next meeting of the Fed's interest rate committee by two weeks.
Britain's FTSE 100 rose 1.2 percent, Germany's DAX index and France's CAC-40 each rose 2 percent. Japan's Nikkei stock average fell 1 percent.