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Downgrade fears have once again sent U.S. stocks reeling -- but this time, traders are panicking over the prospect of a negative note for France. Speculation regarding a potential French ratings downgrade pressured European markets to a negative finish, after President Nicolas Sarkozy ducked into an impromptu meeting with the Bank of France boss and other finance heads. Even though Bloomberg reports that representatives for Fitch, S&P, and Moody's have already backed their triple-A opinions of France, the economic jitters quickly spread to Wall Street, where a less-than-optimistic statement from the Fed is still being digested. The Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) vowed yesterday to keep rates low for at least two years, as the economic outlook for the U.S. has grown increasingly cloudy since the group's June meeting.
Against this backdrop, the major market indexes are sitting on steep losses at midday, while safe-haven gold futures have zoomed to another new record. In fact, gold jumped north of $1,800 an ounce for the first time ever earlier in the session, as the precious metal continues to capitalize on macroeconomic melodrama.
At last check, the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA - 10,858.85) has spiraled to a loss of 380.9 points, or 3.4%. The S&P 500 Index (SPX - 1,135.86) is down 36.7 points, or 3.1%, and the Nasdaq Composite (COMP - 2,421.91) has shed 60.7 points, or 2.4%.
Checking in on Dow components, Walt Disney (DIS - 31.20) is pacing the decline with a 10% post-earnings plunge. Not one of the 30 blue chips is trading higher at midday.
Meanwhile, the CBOE Market Volatility Index (VIX - 41.55) has resumed its upward trajectory, with the index rocketing 18.5% at last look. The VIX is currently on pace to end the session north of the 40 level for the second time in three days.
Among equities in focus, Motricity (MOTR - 2.12) is down more than 53% after offering disappointing third-quarter guidance. Earlier, the stock found a fresh record low of $2.02. Goldman Sachs (GS - 114.03) has shed more than 7%, despite an upgrade to "neutral" from analyst Richard Bove. Likewise, Cisco Systems (CSCO - 13.81) is off 1.7% ahead of tonight's earnings report, even though Gleacher & Co. raised its rating on the stock to "buy" from "hold" bright and early this morning. On the other hand, Capital One Financial (COF - 40.97) has edged fractionally higher after agreeing to acquire HSBC's U.S. credit card business.