Stocks pulled back from their lows in afternoon trading Tuesday, but still closed down amid worries about Europe's economic and debt problems.
The major indexes bounced up and down on another volatile day that ended a three-day rally. The Dow Jones industrial average fell more than 120 points in the first half hour of trading after a report showed that Germany's economy stalled last quarter and dragged down growth for Europe.
The Dow pared most of its losses by noon, but resumed its drop after the leaders of France and Germany tried to calm worries about Europe's debt problems by pushing for long-term political solutions. Markets were hoping for immediate financial measures like the introduction of a single bond jointly backed the eurozone's members. The Dow fell as many as 190 points shortly after 1 p.m. in New York before again paring its losses.
According to preliminary calculations, the Dow was down 76.97 points, or 0.67 percent, at 11,405.93. The Standard & Poor's 500 index fell 11.73, or 0.97 percent, to 1,192.76. The Nasdaq composite fell 31.75, or 1.24 percent, to 2,523.45.
"The real question the market is trying to answer is: Are we going to have another recession or not?" said John Burke, head of Burke Financial Strategies with $200 million in assets under management. "Today, the answer is maybe yes because it doesn't look like Europe has figured out a solution to its debt."
A proposal by French President Nicolas Sarkozy for a Europe-wide tax on financial transactions also hurt stocks, said Nick Kalivas, vice president at broker MF Global. "It's another slap in the face to the banking system" and would cut into profits and limit trading, he said. "The path toward economic growth still looks pretty uncertain."
In the U.S., economic reports on Tuesday were mixed: Housing remains weak, but factory output rose last month at its fastest pace since an earthquake in Japan disrupted global manufacturing in March.
"Investors don't know which way to go here," said Paul Brigandi, senior vice president of Direxion Funds, which has about $7 billion in assets under management.
On one side, he said buying looks attractive because stocks are cheaper after the S&P 500's 10.4 percent drop from July 21 to Monday. And more U.S. companies on Tuesday joined the stream of those that have reported earnings above analysts' expectations. But on the other side, selling looks appealing because of worries about the global economy and debt problems in both the United States and Europe.
Prices for gold and Treasurys rose as money moved into investments considered safer. Oil fell on worries that a weaker economy will mean less demand for energy.
Fitch Ratings also said Tuesday it will keep its credit rating on the United States at the top grade. Two of the three major credit-rating agencies now have stood by their AAA grade of U.S. debt. Standard & Poor's downgraded the U.S. on Aug. 5. That sent stocks on a volatile slide last week.
Europe's economy and debt troubles have been among global investors' main concerns over the last year and a half. On Tuesday, the European Union reported that economic growth in the 17 countries that use the euro slowed to 0.2 percent between April and June from 0.8 percent in the previous quarter. Germany's growth fell to 0.1 percent from 1.3 percent.
That will make it even tougher for Spain and other countries to raise revenue. Some European countries have borrowed so much that they may need help repaying debt.
Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel called for a "new economic government" for Europe and said all countries that use the euro should have mandatory balanced budgets and better coordination of economic policy. They also pledged to harmonize their corporate taxes to show they are "marching in lockstep" to protect the euro.
In the U.S., the government reported that homebuilders are still stuck in their years-long slump. They broke ground on new homes at an annual rate of 604,000 last month, according to the Commerce Department. That's down from 613,000 in June. In 2005, before the housing bubble burst, housing starts were typically above 2 million.
Manufacturing may be recovering. Industrial production rose 0.9 percent last month on a pickup at auto factories, utilities and mines. Manufacturing had been one of the strongest industries since the recession ended in 2009, but its growth had been slowing this year.
Wal-Mart Stores Inc. rose 4.8 percent after it said net income rose 5.7 percent last quarter from a year ago on strong overseas sales. Earnings growth was stronger than analysts expected, and the world's largest retailer raised its profit forecast for the year.
Home Depot Inc. rose 5.6 percent after it said second-quarter net income rose 14 percent and raised its profit forecast.
Investors have largely ignored the strong earnings companies have reported for the second quarter. Those in the S&P 500 index earned a record amount last quarter on an operating basis, which ignores one-time costs and other special items, according to S&P senior index analyst Howard Silverblatt.
Investors have been overwhelmed by the market's volatility, said Tim Holland, portfolio manager of the Aston/Tamro Diversified Equity fund. "When you have these big swings, people completely lose focus on companies and their results. They're paying more attention to the market than the companies that make up the market. The earnings season was good and better than expected."
Holland said that not only are companies making more money, they have healthier balance sheets than during the financial crisis of 2008. He has been buying stocks made cheaper by the downturn. "We like to buy the best when they're depressed," he said.
Energy stocks in the S&P 500 fell 1.7 percent after oil fell $1.23 per barrel to settle at $86.65.
NYSE Euronext Inc. fell 8.9 percent for the biggest loss among stocks in the S&P 500 on worries a possible European financial-transaction tax would erode profits.
Saks Inc. fell 3.6 percent after it said it's going into the fall season "a bit more cautiously." Its higher-income customers have been spending more, because they're more protected from the weak job market than middle-income Americans. But the volatile stock market could hurt wealthy shoppers' confidence. Saks said its revenue rose 13 percent last quarter from a year ago, and it reported a loss of just $8.4 million versus its loss a year ago of $32.2 million.
The yield on the 10-year Treasury note fell to 2.22 percent from 2.31 percent late Monday as investors moved into things considered safer. A bond's yield falls when its price rises. The 10-year yield fell to a record low of 2.03 percent last week.
Gold rose $27 per ounce to settle at $1,785. Last week, it rose above $1,800 for the first time.
The Dow rallied 213 points on Monday after a series of acquisitions, highlighted by Google's $12.5 billion purchase of Motorola Mobility. It marked the Dow's first three-day gain since July 1. Its rise of 763 points over the three days was the Dow's biggest since November 2008, during the depths of the financial crisis.