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Stocks sink after Fitch warns on US bank exposure

In this Nov. 9, 2011 photo, specialist Thomas Facchine, left, and trader Edward Baumann work on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. Continuing unease over Europe's debt crisis pushed investors out of global stock markets Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2011, even though pressure on the interest rates European countries pay to borrow money eased after skyrocketing a day earlier. In this Nov. 9, 2011 photo, specialist Thomas Facchine, left, and trader Edward Baumann work on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. Continuing unease over Europe's debt crisis pushed investors out of global stock markets Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2011, even though pressure on the interest rates European countries pay to borrow money eased after skyrocketing a day earlier. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)
By Matthew Craft and David K. Randall
AP Business Writers / November 16, 2011

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NEW YORK—A warning from Fitch Ratings that large U.S. banks could be hit hard if Europe's debt crisis spreads sent stocks falling late Wednesday.

U.S. indexes were moving between small gains and losses before Fitch released its report around 3:15 p.m. Eastern time. The Dow was down 36 points with an hour of trading left, then plunged to end the day down 190.

Fitch, one of the three main credit ratings agencies along with S&P and Moody's, said U.S. banks could be "greatly affected" if Europe's debt crisis continues to spread beyond financially troubled countries such as Greece, Ireland and Portugal.

Large banks took a late dive. Bank of America Corp. and JPMorgan Chase & Co. each lost 3.7 percent. Goldman Sachs dropped 4.1 percent and Morgan Stanley 7.9 percent.

"This is a long-running, slow-developing story," said Jack Ablin, chief investment officer at Harris Private Bank in Chicago. U.S. stocks had rallied in the past week as new governments took over in Greece and Italy and promised to implement budget reforms. It's a familiar pattern, Ablin said. "It seems like it's always one step forward and two steps back."

The Dow Jones industrial average closed at 11,905.59, a loss of 190.57, or 1.6 percent. It was the Dow's first close below 12,000 since last Thursday.

The Standard & Poor's 500 index fell 20.89 points, or 1.7 percent, to 1,236.92. The Nasdaq composite lost 46.59, or 1.7 percent, to 2,639.61.

Concerns that the debt troubles of Greece and Italy could spread have been driving the borrowing rates of France higher on bond markets since the beginning of November.

The benchmark rate on France's 10-year bonds was just 2.54 percent on Oct. 5. It has climbed steadily since then, reaching 3.69 percent Wednesday. That's a reflection of deepening worries that France, the second-largest country in the euro bloc after Germany, could be in danger of losing its triple-A credit rating.

For the moment, Fitch said the risks to U.S. banks from Europe appeared to be "manageable." However investors have been quick to respond to headlines about how Europe's debt woes might hurt the global financial system. Fitch said the top five U.S. banks have a total of $114 billion in loans, deposits and other assets tied to French banks. French banks also have large holdings of bonds issued by Greece and Italy.

Stock indexes wavered earlier Wednesday as the price of oil crossed above $100 a barrel for the first time since July. The jump in crude prices could weaken the already U.S. fragile economy by raising costs for gasoline, heating oil and airline fuel. Oil futures surged 3 percent to $102.59 a barrel as U.S. supplies dropped and a new pipeline deal by a Canadian company threatened to cut them even more.

In corporate news, Abercrombie & Fitch Co. plunged 13.6 percent after the company reported earnings that fell far short of Wall Street's expectations. The company said rising costs for cotton and other commodities cut into profits.

Dell Inc. dropped 3.2 percent after the company said late Tuesday that its revenues will be held back by an industry-wide shortage of hard drives.

U.S. economic reports were mixed. Output at the nation's factories, utilities and mines rose at the fastest pace in three months in October, the Federal Reserve said. Production of autos and parts surged 3.1 percent.

Consumer prices held steady last month. The Consumer Price Index dropped 0.1 percent in October, led by a steep decline in gas prices. An index of builder sentiment rose to the highest level since May 2010 yet is still well below a level consistent with a strong housing market.