NEW YORK (Reuters) - U.S. stocks plunged as much as 9 percent on Thursday as losses caused by Europe’s debt crisis turned into a stampede of automated selling, pushing the euro to an almost 14 month-low and gold to near record highs.
U.S. regulators investigated whether erroneous orders caused a 10-minute nose-dive that dragged the Dow Jones industrial average .DJI into its biggest ever intraday drop in terms of points, a fall of 998.5 points at its low point.
Nearly $1 trillion was wiped off U.S. equity values before prices clawed back much of their losses.
“I’ve seen a lot in my career. This ranks up as one of the top 10 in terms of energy, fear and focus,” said Peter Kenny, managing director at Knight Equity Markets in Jersey City, New Jersey, a Wall Street veteran.
Traders in Asia were shaken from their beds and told to start trading. The Wall Street rout came after the close of European stock markets and during the night in Asia.
Investors drove up the price of government debt in a rush to safety and gold jumped more than 3 percent to top $1,200 an ounce in the biggest one-day gain in more than a year.
The VIX .VIX, Wall Street's so-called fear gauge, soared 31.7 percent in its largest percentage jump since September 2008 -- just after the collapse of Lehman Brothers ushered in the darkest days of the biggest financial crisis since the Great Depression.
Speculation about what caused the slump was rampant.
Nasdaq launched a probe into possible erroneous trades and said it would cancel all trades showing a rise or fall of more than 60 percent during the 20 minutes prior to 3 p.m. local (1900 GMT).
“The rumor, which was the same thing that everyone else had heard, was that there was a multi-billion order that was erroneously sent into the stock market,” said Steve Leuer, a stock index futures trader in Chicago.
The Dow, already down on concerns that Greece’s debt crisis could spread to other euro zone countries, lost 651 points in under 10 minutes starting around 2:40 pm and then recovered all of that plunge within half an hour.
The index closed down 347.80 points, or 3.20 percent, at 10,520.32. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index .SPX fell 37.75 points, or 3.24 percent, to 1,128.15. The Nasdaq Composite Index .IXIC lost 82.65 points, or 3.44 percent, to 2,319.64.
After the close on Thursday, S&P 500 stock index futures were down 5.9 points, pointing to a possible further drop at the open of the U.S. stock market on Friday.
Fears of a looming new credit crunch have grown in recent days on the back of Europe’s escalating debt crisis. But some said speculative bubbles had built in the equity, metals and energy markets and were the real catalyst behind the sell-off.
“The stock markets have retraced more than 80 percent from their lows, copper has nearly tripled and crude oil is up nearly 250 percent,” said Troy Buckner, managing principal of hedge fund NuWave Investment Management LLC of Morristown, New Jersey. “Multiple sectors were exposed to these excesses.”
The sell-off was broad and deep, with all 10 of the S&P 500 sectors falling 2 to 4 percent. The financial sector was the worst hit, sliding 4.1 percent .GSPF.
U.S. Treasury prices soared in a safe-haven stampede.
Ten-year notes last traded up 1-7/32 at 102 after hitting a session high of 103. The 10-year yield was last 3.40 percent after trading down to 3.27 percent, a five-month intraday low.
Investors rushed to the perceived safety of the U.S. dollar and Japanese yen as the European Central Bank on Thursday offered no new measures to ease the Greek debt crisis.
After dropping to $1.2523, the euro was last down 1.5 percent at $1.2622, its lowest since March 2009.
“This is a full capitulation sell-off we’ve seen in the last couple of hours,” said Brian Dolan, chief currency strategist, at Forex.com in Bedminster, New Jersey.
“The sovereign credit worries in Europe started the ball rolling and now it’s a complete panic,” he said as the market rout
The euro, which hit 110.65 yen earlier -- its lowest level since 2001 -- was on track for its biggest daily loss against the yen since October 2008, according to Reuters data.
Among major currencies, the U.S. dollar was only weaker against the yen, dropping more than 4 percent to as low as 88.03 yen, according to Reuters.
Selling increased as Greek lawmakers approved a 30-billion euro austerity bill that paved the way for a bailout by the European Union and International Monetary Fund.
Investors fretted over the effect of the crisis on the more vulnerable members of the euro zone.
“Many expect that Portugal and maybe Spain will follow in Greece’s footsteps and need a bailout from the European Union,” said John Doyle, foreign exchange strategist at Tempus Consulting in Washington.
Little was spared during the sell-off. Emerging markets were hard hit, but stocks prices in Latin America fell less than Wall Street for the most part.
The Bovespa index .BVSP in Sao Paulo slid 2.3 percent and the Brazilian real fell 5 percent at one point in its biggest one-day plunge since October 2008. The real later pared some losses.
The MSCI's all-country world stock index .MIWD00000PUS tumbled 2.7 percent.
Additional reporting by Leah Schnurr and Dan Bases; Editing by Leslie Adler
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