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Dow stumbles to 6-year low

Bank stocks lead the retreat, pushing the blue-chip indicator to levels not seen since October 2002.

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By Alexandra Twin, CNNMoney.com senior writer

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NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- The Dow Jones industrial average slumped to a more than 6-year low Thursday, as fears of a prolonged recession sent stock investors heading for the exits.

Treasury prices slid, boosting the corresponding yields, as investors sought safety in government debt. The dollar was mixed versus other major currencies. Oil prices spiked 14%, while gold prices dipped.

The Dow Jones industrial average (INDU) slid 89 points, or 1.2% closing at the lowest point since Oct. 9, 2002, the low of the last bear market. The Dow had dropped as low as 7,447.55 during the session.

The Standard & Poor's 500 (SPX) index lost 9.5 points, or 1.2% and closed at its lowest point since Nov. 20. That sets the index just above the so-called bear market lows hit in the late fall when the panic around the financial sector crisis peaked.

The Nasdaq composite (COMP) shed 25 points or 1.7%. Tech has held up better than the rest of the market and the Nasdaq stands almost 10% above its Nov. 20 close.

Wall Street has struggled lately on worries that the U.S. government's various plans to soften the recession won't work in the face of an accelerating global slowdown.

"The government is doing everything and anything to right this ship, but the big liquidity players, the hedge funds and the mutual funds, are hoarding cash," said Gary Hager, president at Integrated Wealth Management.

The Dow has now broken through the so-called bear market lows of late November, reached as the panic around the financial sector crisis peaked.

Hager said the major gauges have done enough damage on the technical side in the last few days that they are at risk of falling a lot more over the next week.

"The market is on life support and there aren't enough people in the market to get under a selloff and turn it around," he said.

But that doesn't mean stocks have to slide aggressively from here.

"We didn't rocket into the lows, we kind of slouched," said Kim Caughey, senior equity analyst at Fort Pitt Capital Group. "It doesn't feel frantic like it did in November, where volatility is through the roof."

She said stocks are likely to continue drifting lower through the first half of the year, particularly as there is no big catalyst looming to change Wall Street's momentum.

Friday brings a key report on consumer prices and quarterly results from J.C. Penney (JCP, Fortune 500) and Lowe's (LOW, Fortune 500).

Economy: The Federal Reserve on Wednesday lowered its forecast for the first half of the year, noting that the economy will continue to shrink and unemployment will continue to rise. Thursday's reports demonstrated that forecast.

The number of Americans filing new claims for unemployment held steady last week at 627,000, versus forecasts for a drop to 620,000. But the number of Americans continuing to file claims rose to a record 4,987,000.

Wholesale inflation prices advanced more than expected last month, partly as a result of higher energy costs. The Producer Price Index (PPI) rose 0.8% after falling 1.9% in December. Economists thought it would rise 0.3%.

The so-called core PPI, which strips out volatile food and energy prices, rose 0.4% after rising 0.2% in December. Economists thought it would rise just 0.1%.

The Philadelphia Fed index, a regional reading on manufacturing, fell to minus 41.3 from minus 24.3 in January. Economists thought it would dip to minus 25. It was the lowest reading since 1990, according to High Frequency Economics.

On the upside, the index of leading economic indicators, issued by the Conference Board, rose 0.4% in January from a revised 0.2% in December. Economists thought it would rise 0.1%.

Washington: The government has introduced or modified a number of new plans over the last week as part of its attempt to stabilize the economy. But the market reaction has been muted at best.

On Wednesday, President Obama unveiled the housing plan that is meant to help up to 9 million borrowers who are struggling amid falling home prices and unaffordable mortgages. Analysts say the fix will help many, but not all.

On Tuesday, General Motors (GM, Fortune 500) and Chrysler asked the government for another $21.6 billion to stay afloat, but the final tally for the auto bailout could be a lot higher.

Investors are still sorting through the details of the $787 billion economic stimulus plan, which President Obama signed into law on Tuesday.

And Treasury's bank bailout plan, announced last week, left investors scratching their heads over the lack of details.

Company news: Hewlett-Packard (HPQ, Fortune 500) reported lower earnings that met analysts' estimates on higher revenue that missed estimates in a report released late Wednesday. The tech leader also gave a forecast for current-quarter results that is short of forecasts. HP shares fell nearly 8% Thursday.

Sprint Nextel (S, Fortune 500) reported a quarterly loss and said 1.3 million subscribers ditched its mobile phone service. But the loss narrowed from a year earlier and was smaller than analysts had expected. Revenue fell from the prior year and was shy of expectations. Investors focused on the positive and the stock rose 20%.

Big financial stocks tumbled, including Dow components American Express (AXP, Fortune 500), Bank of America (BAC, Fortune 500), Citigroup (C, Fortune 500) and JPMorgan Chase (JPM, Fortune 500). Other losers included Wells Fargo (WFC, Fortune 500), Fifth Third (FITB, Fortune 500) and Capital One Financial (CAF).

The KBW Bank (BKX) index lost 7%.

Truckers, railroads and airline stocks tumbled as well, sending the Dow Jones Transportation (DJT) average to its lowest close in about 5-1/2 years.

Market breadth was negative. On the New York Stock Exchange, losers topped winners seven to three on volume of 1.49 billion shares. On the Nasdaq, decliners beat advancers two to one on volume of 2.06 billion shares.

Bonds: Treasury prices slipped, raising the yield on the benchmark 10-year note to 2.81% from 2.75% Wednesday. Treasury prices and yields move in opposite directions.

Lending rates were little changed. The 3-month Libor rate was 1.25%, unchanged from Wednesday, according to Bloomberg.com. The overnight Libor rate fell to 0.29% from 0.30% Wednesday. Libor is a bank lending rate.

Other markets: In global trading, most Asian and European markets ended higher.

The dollar fell against the euro and gained against the yen.

U.S. light crude oil for March delivery settled up $4.86 to $39.48 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange. Prices spiked after the government said crude supplies fell last week for the first time in two months.

COMEX gold for April delivery fell $1.70 to settle at $976.50 an ounce.

Gasoline prices decreased eight-tenths of a cent to a national average of $1.949 a gallon, according to a survey of credit-card swipes released Thursday by motorist group AAA.  To top of page

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