U.S. stocks fell sharply Tuesday, following steep losses in European markets two days before a critical deadline in the Greek debt crisis. The Dow Jones industrial average suffered its biggest decline during a trading day this year.
Just before 11 a.m. EST, the Dow was down 170 points at 12,792, a loss of 1.4 percent. It was down as much as 178 points earlier. The biggest decline for the Dow during a trading day this year had been a 159-point decline on Jan. 13.
The Dow has not closed down 100 points in 45 straight trading sessions, the longest streak since 2006.
Stocks fell almost 3 percent in Germany, Spain and France. Thursday is the deadline for private investors to sign up to swap their Greek government bonds for replacements with a lower face value and interest rate.
Major banks and investment funds have signed on for the swap, but it remains unclear whether hedge funds, which had already bought the bonds at a steep discount and may profit from bond insurance payouts if Greece defaults, will agree.
The swap deal is vital for Greece to cut its debt and get a bailout of €130 billion, or $172 billion, from other countries and the International Monetary Fund. Without the bailout, Greece could default on its debt later this month and rattle markets around the world.
In the U.S., worries about Greece come on top of concerns about a recession in Europe and slowing economic growth in China. Some investors also believe the rally in U.S. stocks this year -- the Standard & Poor's 500 is up 7 percent -- has come too far too fast.
On Tuesday, the S&P 500 was down 19 points at 1,346. The Nasdaq composite index fell 42 points to 2,908. All 10 industry groups in the S&P 500 were lower, with materials stocks and banks leading the decline.
All but one of the 30 stocks that make up Dow, Kraft Foods, declined. Caterpillar, which makes heavy equipment and depends heavily on China for profits, fell 3.4 percent, the worst of the Dow 30.
Oil prices slipped $1.49 to $105.23 per barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange. New York crude has risen from $96 last month amid fears of a disruption in global oil supplies driven by the potential for military conflict with Iran.
The price of gold fell $33 per ounce, almost 2 percent, to $1,670 per ounce. Silver, platinum and copper all fell more than 2 percent, because of concerns about Europe and weaker economic demand in China.
"Global growth fears now are hitting home, and we're seeing selling across the board," said Matt Zeman, a market analyst for Kingsview Financial.
Yields on U.S. government debt also fell as investors moved their money into what they perceive to be a safer asset. The yield on the benchmark 10-year Treasury note fell to 1.94 percent from 2.01 percent late Monday. Bond yields fall when their prices rise.
Among stocks making big moves:
-- Weight loss company Nutrisystem Inc. fell 11 percent after it reported a bigger-than-expected fourth-quarter loss and a disappointing outlook.
-- General Motors fell 4 percent after saying it will pay €304 million, or $402 million, for a 7 percent stake in Peugeot, which will make it the French carmaker's second-largest shareholder after the Peugeot family.
-- VeriFone Systems Inc. rose 4.9 percent after the maker of electronic payment systems predicted a bigger-than-expected 2012 profit.
-- Apple fell 1.6 percent, extending its two-day decline to 3.6 percent, one day before the expected release of its iPad 3 tablet computer.