Dow closes down for fourth day in a row

Trader Kenneth Polcari works on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange Thursday, March 13, 2014.
Richard Drew, AP

A slide in the stock market steepened Thursday as rhetoric between the U.S. and Russia over Ukraine intensified, and China released economic data sparking concerns of a slowdown.

The Dow Jones industrial average dropped 231 points, or 1.4 percent, to 16,109, giving it its fourth loss in a row. The Standard & Poor's 500 index fell 22 points, or 1.2 percent, to 1,846. The Nasdaq composite dropped 63 points, or 1.5 percent, to 4,260. Traders seeking safety piled money into U.S. government debt and utility stocks.

The market initially moved into positive territory Thursday morning on news that U.S. retail sales rose 0.3 percent in February as Americans spent more on cars, clothing and furniture, the Commerce Department reported. Spending had fallen 0.6 percent in January. The increase suggests that spending has started to recover after being tempered by snowstorms and freezing temperatures that blanketed much of the country.

Retail numbers could get even better in the coming months, said Paul Dales, senior economist at Capital Economics, in a note to clients. "Looking ahead there is clearly scope for more of the demand pent during the bad weather to be released."

The weekly jobless report was also positive. The number of people seeking U.S. unemployment benefits dropped 9,000 last week to a seasonally adjusted 315,000, its lowest level in three months. It was the second straight decline, and it added to evidence that the job market is picking up after a winter slump.

But the news failed to trump unease over the crisis in Ukraine and lingering concerns over China's economy.

Worry over China worsened Thursday after government figures there showed industrial production rose in the first two months of the year at a rate that was lower than analysts were expecting. Chinese retail sales growth also fell short of estimates.

"At this stage, investors are linking these negative data points coming out of China and they don't like what they see," said Lawrence Creatura, a portfolio manager at Federated Investors. "Even small hiccups there can have large implications for investors."

Meanwhile, President Barack Obama said Thursday that if Russia continues on its aggressive path in Ukraine, the United States and other countries will be "forced to apply costs" to Moscow. Secretary of State John Kerry told a Senate committee on Thursday that Moscow should expect the U.S. and Europe to take measures against it should Russia act on a vote by Crimea to join Russia.

The Dow, which had been up more than 60 points in early trading, turned negative by midday.

The yield on the 10-year Treasury note tumbled to 2.66 percent from 2.73 percent late Wednesday as bond prices rose. The yield affects rates on mortgages and other consumer loans.