Stocks start the week with a drubbing

NEW YORK - Worries about the outlook for growth in China and a slide in the price of oil pushed the stock market to its biggest loss in almost seven weeks Monday.

Investors are nervous about China following a run of soft economic data that suggests growth in the world's second-largest economy is slowing. The worries about China helped push down the price of oil. That in turn weighed on energy stocks.

The stock market has struggled to gain traction this month as investors have considered signs of an improving economy in the U.S. against evidence of slowing growth in both Europe and Asia.

"We've got China weighing down on stocks," said Kristina Hooper, U.S. investment strategist at Allianz Global Investors. "The lack of transparency there always creates greater uncertainty."

The Standard & Poor's 500 index dropped 16.11 points, or 0.8 percent, to close at 1,994.29. The loss was the biggest one-day decline for the index since Aug. 5. The index is down 0.5 percent this month.

The Dow Jones industrial average fell 107.06 points, or 0.6 percent, to end at 17,172.68. The Nasdaq composite dropped 52.10 points, or 1.1 percent, finishing at 4,527.69.

The losses were broad, and all 10 industry sectors that make up the S&P 500 declined. Energy stocks were the second-biggest decliners, slumping 1.4 percent as the price of oil fell. Companies that rely the most on consumer spending, such as entertainment and media conglomerates and retailers, fell the most.

The price of oil dropped on concerns that Libya's production is picking up at a time when global economic indicators point to weaker demand from countries including China. Benchmark U.S. oil fell 89 cents to $91.52 a barrel. Analysts say U.S. oil could test the $90 mark sometime this week.

Smaller companies were also among the biggest decliners as investors shunned the riskier parts of the market.

The Russell 2000, an index which tracks small-company stocks, fell 1.5 percent, more than other indexes. The Russell has dropped 3 percent so far this year, compared with gains of 7.9 percent for the S&P 500 and 3.6 percent for the Dow.

Some analysts say investors should regard any pullback in stock prices as an opportunity to add to their holdings. Recent reports on the U.S. manufacturing and the service industries have been strong. Hiring is picking up, and inflation remains tame.

"The fundamentals in the U.S. have been coming in strong, beyond expectations," said Doug Cote, chief market strategist at Voya Investment Management. "It's a modest pullback. If anything I would take it as an opportunity to build positions."

On Monday, stocks were also hurt by a report showed that fewer Americans bought homes in August as investors retreated from real estate and first-time buyers remained scarce.

If the trend continues it could dent consumers' confidence, said Allianz's Hooper.

"It really speaks to much of middle-class America. The largest component of their net worth is their home," she said. "It could really put a damper on consumer spending and consumer sentiment."

The National Association of Realtors said sales of existing homes fell 1.8 percent to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 5.05 million. That followed four months of gains. August sales fell from a July rate of 5.14 million, a figure that was revised slightly downward.

The report weighed on homebuilding stocks. Hovnanian (HOV) fell 14 cents, or 3.6 percent, to $3.80 and Beazer Homes (BZH) fell 52 cents, or 2.8 percent, to $18.09.

St. Louis-based chemical firm Sigma-Aldrich (SIAL) was among the day's winners. The company's stock surged $34.03, or 33.2 percent, to $136.40 after agreeing to be acquired by Merck, a German drug company. Merck is paying $140 a share from Sigma-Aldrich, a premium of 37 percent over Friday's closing price.

Apple (AAPL) also bucked the slump, logging a small gain of 10 cents, or 0.1 percent, to $101.06. The technology company said that it has sold more than 10 million iPhone 6 and 6 Plus models, a record for a new model, in the three days after the phones went on sale.

In other energy trading, wholesale gasoline fell 2.7 cents to $2.585 a gallon, heating oil dropped 3 cents to $2.687 a gallon and natural gas rose 1.3 cents to $3.85 per 1,000 cubic feet.

Metals remained weak. Silver continued its recent descent, falling to its lowest level since the summer of 2010.

The price of an ounce of silver fell 7 cents, or 0.4 percent, to $17.77 an ounce. Precious metals, including gold, have been pressured by the recent strength of the dollar, low global inflation and rising stock markets. Gold is trading close to its lowest price since the start of the year. Gold edged up $1.30, or 0.1 percent, to $1,217.90 an ounce. Copper fell five cents, or 1.7 percent, to $3.04 a pound.

U.S. government bond prices rose. The yield on the 10-year government bond, which falls when prices rise, dropped to 2.55 percent from 2.58 percent.

In currency trading, the dollar weakened against both the Japanese yen and the euro.

The Japanese yen has been trading at six-year lows against the dollar in anticipation that the U.S. Federal Reserve will raise interest rates next year while the Bank of Japan will maintain an easy monetary policy. On Monday, the dollar edged down to 108.77 yen. The euro rose a fraction to $1.2849.