US stocks plunge on slow jobs growth

The December report showed employers added the fewest jobs to their payrolls since August 2003.

SHARES WALL STREET Stocks fell sharply again Friday after the US government's much-anticipated employment report showed weaker-than-expected job growth and a rise in the unemployment rate. The Nasdaq composite index, also pummeled by a downgrade of Intel Corp., plummeted 3.7 percent, while the Dow Jones industrials fell 1.9%. The US Labor Department's report that employers raised payrolls by only 18,000 and that the nation's unemployment rate rose to its highest level since November 2005 unnerved investors, who worried that a weakening job market will hurt consumer spending and tip the economy toward recession. A better-than-expected reading on the nation's service economy briefly pulled stocks off their lows but wasn't enough to shake investors' concerns. The December report showed employers added the fewest jobs to their payrolls since August 2003. Economists had predicted a jobs growth figure of about 70,000 and an unemployment rate of 4.8%. Instead, unemployment climbed to 5% in December from 4.7% in November. The technology-focused Nasdaq fell for the sixth straight session and showed its steepest percentage decline since a market pullback on February 27 last year. The Nasdaq declined 98.03, or 3.77%, to 2,504.65, in part after the downgrade of Intel, but also because its smaller-capitalization components are seen as more vulnerable in an economic slowdown. The Dow fell 256.54, or 1.96%, to 12,800.18, while the Standard & Poor's 500 index declined 35.53, or 2.46%, to 1,411.63. It was the steepest point drop for the Dow and the S&P 500 since December 11. The Russell 2000 index of smaller companies fell 23.44, or 3.14%, to 721.57 and hit a fresh 52-week low. EUROPE Share prices on the London Stock Exchange fell 2.02%. The FTSE 100-share index was down 130.90 points at 6,348.50, Germany's DAX index fell 1.26%, and France's CAC-40 fell 1.79%. ASIA Markets were mixed, with Japanese stocks falling sharply to open the new year and Hong Kong shares rising as Chinese oil companies led the key index there higher. Japan's main stock index plunged to its lowest finish since July 2006, losing ground after jittery trade on Wall Street amid concerns about the US economy and rising oil prices. The benchmark Nikkei stock index lost 4.0%, to finish Friday's half-day session at 14,691.41. The Tokyo Stock Exchange had been closed since last Friday for the New Year's holidays. It resumes full-day trading Monday. Meanwhile, the Hang Seng Index on the Hong Kong Exchange - which opened 2008 trade Wednesday - rose 2.4% to 27,519.7, rebounding from two days of falls sparked by concerns about the economic outlooks for China and the US. Tokyo's broader Topix index, which includes all shares on the exchange's first section, lost 4.3% to 1,411.90. CURRENCY The dollar mostly fell after a US government jobs report, which showed unemployment hitting a two-year high, sunk stocks, deepened recession fears and increased investors' sentiment that another Federal Reserve interest cut was forthcoming. The dollar slid against the euro. The 15-nation currency was worth $1.4773 in late New York trading, compared to $1.4744 Thursday. The dollar fell to 108.45 yen from 109.33 yen late Thursday. The dollar gained against the British pound, however, recouping its losses in earlier trading. The pound edged down to $1.9723 from $1.9732. And the dollar climbed to 1.0018 Canadian dollars Friday from 99.04 Canadian cents. COMMODITIES An ounce of gold for February delivery dropped $3.40 to settle at $865.70 on the New York Mercantile Exchange. The precious metal hit $871.80 earlier in the session. Still, when adjusted for inflation, gold remains well below the high of $875 an ounce set in 1980. An ounce of gold at that price would be worth $2,115 to $2,200 today. Other precious metals also fell Friday. March copper dropped 3.05 cents to settle at $3.1575 a pound on the Nymex, and March silver lost 3.8 cents to $15.462 an ounce. April platinum fell $4.70 to end at $1,547.10 an ounce. Rising oil prices, which retreated Friday from this week's record levels above $100 a barrel, have further boosted gold, which investors use as a hedge against inflation and political uncertainty. Light, sweet crude for February delivery fell $1.27 to settle at $97.91 a barrel on the Nymex. The unemployment data prompted concern that a possible recession could dampen demand for oil.