- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Stocks closed lower Tuesday for only the second time in two weeks after two reports suggested an economic slowdown in China, where blistering growth over the past three years has helped sustain the global economic recovery.

U.S. stocks recovered some of their early losses but still closed lower. The Dow Jones industrial average declined 68.94 points to 13,170.19. It had been down as much as 116 points.

The Standard & Poor’s 500 index closed down 4.23 points at 1,405.52. The Nasdaq composite index dropped 4.17 points to 3,074.15.

In China, home prices dropped in 45 cities last month, a result of government policies designed to reduce property speculation. And BHP Billiton, a mining company, predicted that China will not use much more iron ore in 2020 than it does today.

Brian Gendreau, a market strategist at the brokerage Cetera Financial Group, said traders were concerned about slower growth in India and Brazil as well. That could rein in a rally that has driven the S&P up almost 12 percent this year.

“If there were skeptics out there that the market might have gotten a little ahead of itself, this was all the news they needed,” Mr. Gendreau said.

Mining companies, which rely on rising demand from the developing world, plunged. Peabody Energy fell 5.4 percent, Cliffs Natural Resources dropped 2.4 percent, and U.S. Steel lost 0.9 percent. Energy stocks were the worst-performing group in the S&P 500.

Caterpillar, the maker of heavy equipment, led the Dow lower and slid 2.6 percent after it said global sales are growing more slowly. Bank of America, by far the most active stock in the Dow, led the average with a 2.9 percent gain.

Besides the report on home prices and the prediction of weaker demand for iron ore, which is used to make steel, China raised the price of gasoline for the second time in two months. That increase could hurt demand for fuel.

China’s economy grew at an annual rate of 8.9 percent in the last three months of 2011, but the government, which is worried that the economy will overheat, has set a growth target of 7.5 percent this year.

Commodity prices fell broadly, also because of concerns about Chinese demand. Copper fell almost 2 percent. Platinum and palladium also fell. Gold fell more than $20 an ounce to $1,647 and is down 8 percent this month.

The price of oil dropped $2.48 to $105.61 in New York trading. In addition to the worry about China, oil fell because Saudi Arabia promised to fulfill any shortfalls in global supply because of the standoff over Iran’s nuclear program.

Yields for U.S. government debt fell slightly after rising for nine consecutive days. The yield on the 10-year Treasury note dropped to 2.33 percent, from 2.36 late Monday, but recovered to 2.36 percent later Tuesday.

The dollar rose against the euro. Traders tend to buy what they consider safer currencies, such as the dollar, when they are worried about the global economy. The euro fell to $1.322 from $1.324 late Monday.

The U.S. Commerce Department released a mixed report on the housing market. Builders broke ground on fewer homes in February, though they obtained more permits to build homes later in the year.

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