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In Europe, tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets in Athens and Madrid, where they clashed with riot police ahead of new rounds of spending cuts and tax hikes. The Bank of Spain warned that the country is in a deep recession, a day after protests in Madrid led to at dozens of arrests and injuries.

Spain’s IBEX index fell the most, closing down 3.9 percent. Italy’s FTSE MIB fell 3.3 percent, Germany’s DAX 2 percent and France’s CAC-40 2.8 percent.

The developments in Europe blunted any optimism about the U.S. housing market. Wednesday’s report, while mixed, appeared to confirm that the market has hit bottom. Other recent data showed that sales of previously occupied homes jumped in August to the highest level since May 2010. Builder confidence is at a six-year high, and construction of single-family homes rose last month to the fastest annual rate in more than two years.

The fear is that a broader recession in Europe could stall whatever economic recovery is occurring in the U.S., where the housing market has been a major drag for five years.

In corporate news, American Greetings Corp. shares jumped $2.48, or 17.3 percent, to $16.82 after the greeting card company said that a group led by its CEO and chief operating officer wants to take it private in a deal that values it at about $581 million.

Automobile auctioneer Copart hit an all-time high and closed up 43 cents, or 1.6 percent, at $27.82 after a strong fourth quarter that topped Wall Street expectations.