A period of relative calm on Wall Street ended as stocks tumbled in the final hour of trading on growing investor anxiety about the government's November employment report.
The major indexes each fell more than 2.5 per cent on Thursday, including the Dow Jones industrial average, which dropped nearly 216 points after rising in seven of the last eight sessions.
The Dow Jones industrial average fell 215.45, or 2.51 per cent, to 8,376.24.
Broader stock indicators also declined. The Standard & Poor's 500 index fell 25.52, or 2.93 per cent, to 845.22, and the Nasdaq composite index fell 46.82, or 3.14 per cent, to 1,445.56.
The Russell 2000 index of smaller companies fell 14.23, or 3.14 per cent, to 439.53.
The number of stocks declining on the New York Stock Exchange outpaced those advancing by nearly 3 to 1. Volume came to 1.47 billion shares compared with 1.3 billion shares traded on Wednesday.
Among the economic data arriving on Thursday, the Labor Department said new claims for jobless benefits fell unexpectedly last week but the number of people continuing to receive government aid reached a 26-year high.
The Commerce Department said factory orders plunged by 5.