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The markets cut considerably heavier losses, sitting only modestly to the downside as traders mulled economic reports from across the globe.
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As of 3:10 p.m. ET, the Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 17.5 points, or 0.14%, to 12960, the S&P 500 slumped 5.2 points, or 0.37%, to 1365 and the Nasdaq Composite dipped 23.4 points, or 0.78%, to 2953.
Energy and materials shares were the biggest drags on the broad markets. Halliburton (NYSE:HAL) and Schlumberger (NYSE:SLB), both oilfield giants, shed more than 1.5%, while Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold (NYSE:FCX), one of the world's biggest producers of copper and gold, dropped 3.8%. Certain consumer staples, like Kraft (NYSE:KFT), managed to stave off a bigger fall.
Caterpillar (NYSE:CAT) was the biggest laggard of the Dow components on a point basis, pulling 15.6 points from the blue-chip index. Meanwhile, falling United Technologies (NYSE:UTX) and Boeing (NYSE:BA) shares cost the Dow another 15 points. IBM (NYSE:IBM), ExxonMobil (NYSE:XOM) and Verizon Communications (NYSE:VZ) helped to limit the losses.
China sliced its target for 2012 economic growth from 8%, where it has stood since 2004, to 7.5% and said its top priority is increasing the pace of internal consumer demand to make the world's second biggest economy less reliant on foreign countries. Economists have long feared a so-called hard landing for China, in which expansion there will suddenly drop.
"It's a big deal to see that revised down," James Hughes, senior market analyst at Alpari said in an interview with FOX Business, adding that data from Europe also attributed to the "negative feel" among global market participants.
A report by London-based Markit showed eurozone business activity contracting faster than initially anticipated in February. The gauge hit 49.3 in February, weaker than a preliminary reading of 49.7, and 50.4 in January. Readings above 50 point to expansion, while those below signal contraction. The individual data for the members of the 17-member currency bloc also raised concerns among economists.
"The biggest disappointment in the euro area figures was not the aggregate number, but the divergence between the core and periphery economies; Germany and France continued to see moderate expansion ... while Spain and Italy remained weak," analysts at Nomura wrote in a note to clients on Monday.
The euro dipped 0.08% to $1.3188, while the U.S. dollar fell 0.04% against a basket of six world currencies.
Data from the Commerce Department showing U.S. factory orders fell 1% in January from the month prior, a slightly smaller fall than the 1.5% economists expected, did little to ease the economic malaise on the day. The report covers machinery and other big-ticket items and helps provide an idea of the investment manufacturers have been making in the first quarter, which will contribute to broader economic growth readings, such as gross domestic product.
Volatile energy markets have been a major focus on Wall Street as well. Crude oil prices lurched higher amid worries about Iran, but then fell 2.8% in the largest decline since January last week as economic fears and unexpectedly high supplies took a toll. The benchmark futures contract traded in New York gained 2 cents, or 0.02%, to $106.72 a barrel.
Wholesale New York Harbor gasoline fell 0.43% to $3.258 a gallon. A gallon of regular at the pump costs $3.767 on average nationwide, up from $3.475 last month and $3.503 last year, according to the AAA Fuel Gauge Report.
In metals, gold fell $6.10, or 0.36%, to $1,704 a troy ounce. The 10-year U.S. Treasury yield rose by six basis points to 1.990% as traders moved out of the safe-haven asset.
European blue chips fell 0.64%, the English FTSE 100 dipped 0.61% to 5875 and the German DAX slumped 0.79% to 6866.
In Asia, the Japanese Nikkei 225 slid 0.8% to 9699 and the Chinese Hang Seng sold off by 1.4% to 21265.