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Credit Concerns Spark Sell-Off

NEW YORK (AP) — Wall Street plunged anew Friday, hurtling the Dow Jones industrial average down more than 280 points after comments from a Bear Stearns executive reinvigorated the market's fears of a widening credit crunch.

The drop of more than 2 percent in major stock market indexes was a fitting end to two volatile weeks on Wall Street and followed back-to-back late-day triple digit gains in the Dow. This time, the catalyst for a sharp skid was Bear Stearns Cos. Chief Financial Officer Sam Molinaro, who described turmoil in the credit market as the worst he'd seen in 22 years.

According to preliminary calculations, the Dow fell 284.84, or 2.12 percent, to 13,178.49.

Broader stock indicators also fell. The Standard & Poor's 500 index dropped 39.39, or 2.68 percent, to 1,432.81, and the Nasdaq composite index fell 64.73, or 2.51 percent, to 2,511.25.

The session also saw a notable rise in the bond market, as investors fled to the relative safety of fixed-income investments. The yield on benchmark 10-year Treasury note fell to 4.70 percent from 4.77 percent late Thursday. Bond prices move opposite yields.

Stocks started the day with a decline after the government said jobs growth was not as strong as expected last month and a trade group reported that the nation's service sector grew at a slower pace than expected in July. Then, credit concerns, which have dogged investors for months and have roiled markets since last week, weighed on investor sentiment again; Standard & Poor's Ratings Services lowered its credit outlook on Bear Stearns Cos. to negative from stable because of the investment bank's exposure to the distressed mortgage and corporate buyout markets. The stock fell $6.84, or 5.9 percent, at $108.79.

“I think there is a tremendous amount of uncertainty with regard to the credit markets and how the situation will ultimately settle,” said Mike Malone, trading analyst at Cowen & Co.

Investors remain worried that problems in subprime mortgages — those made to borrowers with poor credit histories — will force lenders to make credit less available. When people and companies can't borrow money as easily, the economy tends to slow down.

“There is not going to be one sort of clear signal that suggests everything is OK,” Malone said, referring to the subprime worries. “I think it's going to take time and the equity markets are going to experience heightened volatility.”

Investors could be in for more volatility in the coming week, which not only includes economic figures on productivity and consumer credit, but also brings a meeting of the Federal Reserve's Open Market Committee, which has left short-term interest rates unchanged for the past year. Investors will likely be looking to its statement following its meeting for any word on the mortgage and credit markets.

The unease over the mortgage market and tightening credit Friday again dragged down financial stocks, which have been hard hit in recent weeks. Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. fell $4.67, or 7.7 percent, to $55.78; its previous 52-week low was $58.85. Merrill Lynch & Co. fell $2.52, or 3.5 percent, to $70.03. During the session the stock fell below its previous 52-week low of $69.14.