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"What we're seeing is a pretty significant sea-change in investor strategy," Young said
For much of the year, the stock market rose with barely an interruption. The S&P 500 climbed for seven months straight from November 2012 through May. Investors, fearful of missing out on the rally, pounced on any dips and pushed markets to record highs. On Thursday, those opportunistic buyers were absent. Nobody wanted to stand in the way of the market's slide.
As investors sold stocks, they likely put the proceeds in cash "for fear the deterioration will continue," said Quincy Krosby, a market strategist at Prudential Financial.
The sharp increase in bond yields prompted investors to sell homebuilders, whose business could be hurt if the pace of home buying slows down. Those stocks fell Thursday even though the National Association of Realtors said U.S. sales of previously occupied homes last month topped 5 million at an annual rate for the first time in 3 ½ years.
PulteGroup plunged $1.89, or 9.1 percent, to $18.87. D.R. Horton fell $2.13, also 9.1 percent, to $21.31.
Markets were also unnerved after manufacturing in China slowed at a faster pace this month as demand weakened. That added to concerns about growth in the world's second-largest economy. A monthly purchasing managers index from HSBC fell to a nine-month low of 48.3 in June. Numbers below 50 indicate a contraction.
A big jump in the overnight lending rate in China also unsettled investors, said Brad Reynolds, a financial advisor at LJPR. The rate measures how much banks charge each other to borrow short-term money. The People's Bank of China was forced to pump about 50 billion yuan, about $8 billion, into the Chinese financial system to alleviate the squeeze, Bloomberg News reported.
Before trading began Thursday on Wall Street, Japan's Nikkei index lost 1.7 percent. The FTSE 100 index of leading British shares fell 3 percent while Germany's DAX dropped 3.3 percent.
In currency trading, the dollar rose to 97.34 Japanese yen from 96.54 yen. The euro fell against the dollar, to $1.3197 from $1.3274.
Gold plunged, leading a rout in commodity prices. Gold dropped $87.80, or 6.4 percent, to $1,286.20 an ounce. Silver fell $1.80, or 8.3 percent, to $19.823 an ounce. Both are at their lowest since September 2010.
Traders dumped gold and silver as their appeal as insurance against inflation and a weak dollar faded. Both became less of an issue after the Fed said it was contemplating an end to its bond-buying program.
Oil was swept up in the sell-off. Crude oil had its biggest one-day price drop since November. U.S. benchmark oil for July delivery sank $2.84, or 2.9 percent, to finish at $95.40 a barrel in New York. Gasoline futures fell more than 3 percent.
Some investors said the sell-off in stocks may be overdone. The Fed is considering easing back on its stimulus because the economy is improving. The central bank has upgraded its outlook for unemployment and economic growth.
The S&P 500 is still up 11.3 percent, for the year, not far from its full-year increase of 13.4 percent last year.
Among other stocks making big moves:
— GameStop, a video game store chain that sells new and used games, rose $2.41, or 6.3 percent, to $40.94 after Microsoft backpedaled and said that there will be no limitations on sharing games on its upcoming Xbox One gaming console.
— Rite Aid fell 23 cents, or 7.4 percent, to $2.88 after the nation's third-largest drugstore chain lowered its forecast for 2014 earnings