Stocks fall sharply as investors mull Fed's rate decision

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NEW YORK (AP) — Fears over slowing global growth hammered stocks in the U.S. and Europe on Friday and lifted prices of government bonds and other assets seen as safer bets.

The selling pushed down major stock indexes in Germany, France and Britain before spreading to the U.S. The Standard and Poor's 500 index slumped to its biggest loss in more than two weeks as all 10 industry sectors of the broad market gauge fell. Energy companies dropped the most as oil plunged.

The stock sell-off came a day after the Federal Reserve decided to hold interest rates near zero. That means borrowing costs will remain low for a while yet, a prospect that has in the past typically boosted stocks. But some investors, expecting the Fed would be confident enough to nudge rates up by at least a quarter of a point, interpreted the stance as a sign that the global economy is dangerously weak.

"If growth in the strongest economy — the United States — isn't strong enough to raise rates even a quarter of a point, what does that say about the prospects for global growth?" said Bill Strazzullo, chief strategist at market research firm Bell Curve Trading.

The Fed has kept its benchmark rate close to zero for almost seven years. In that time, U.S. stocks have nearly tripled from their financial crisis low. The Fed meets again next month and in December.

The Dow Jones industrial average ended down 290.16 points, or 1.7 percent, to 16,384.58. The S&P 500 slumped 32.17 points, or 1.6 percent, to 1,958.03 and the Nasdaq composite shed 66.72 points, or 1.4 percent, to 4,827.23.

Bonds rallied as investors sought safety. The benchmark 10-year Treasury note gained, pushing down its yield to 2.13 percent. Gold also gained.

A gauge of investor fear, the VIX index, shot up 7 percent to 23. In early July, this measure of expected swings in stock prices was 12.

In its rate decision Thursday, the Fed cited low inflation, weakness in the global economy and unsettled financial markets. Investors have been on edge about a slowdown in China and other emerging market nations since last month. The S&P 500 index is down about 8 percent from its record close of 2,130.82 set in May.

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