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Stocks End Worst Quarter Since Crisis

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Stock accelerated losses into Friday's closing bell to finish at session lows as investors took risk off the table before the weekend amid continued fears for a global slowdown.

All three major U.S. indices lost more than 10% during the third quarter, making it their worst since the financial crisis kicked into gear in late 2008 following the implosion of Lehman Bros.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average closed just four points above its intraday low, down by 240.6 points, or 2.2%, at 10,913. The S&P 500 lost 29 points, or 2.5%, to settle at 1131, while the Nasdaq dropped 65 points, or 2.6%, to finish at 2415.

Trading got off to a choppy start as investors waded through the latest influx of global economic data. The Chicago Purchasing Managers Index for August rose to 60.4 in September from 56.5 in August. The report was a welcome surprise given that August saw the lowest level since November 2009. The consensus view was for a third straight sequential decline to 54.

Also setting the tone this morning was a slightly better read on consumer sentiment. The University of Michigan reported that consumer sentiment rose to 59.4 in September, following an August reading of 57.8 that was comparable to levels seen during 2008 financial crisis.

The past two sessions have seen the Dow open solidly higher, only to lose steam by the close, suggesting that buying conviction has been weak. Recent technical analysis suggests that stocks might slip into a bear market, leading investors to try to hedge amid hope that a possible solution to stem Europe's debt crisis provides upward momentum in the market.

A raft of negative data from abroad weighed on investors. A reading on manufacturing in China declined for a third month in September, according to a report from HSBC Holdings and Markit Economics. Retail sales in Germany, Europe's largest economy, came in below expectations, dropping 2.9% in July. The reading marked the biggest drop in more than four years and underscored a possible slowdown in the global economy.

Eurozone inflation jumped 3% in September, exceeding the European Central Bank's target of below 2%, as well as economists' expectations for 2.5%. The latest reading on inflation cooled speculation that the ECB may take monetary easing measures in addition to lowering interest rates.

Before the open, personal income slipped 0.1% and spending increased 0.2% in August, according to the Commerce Department. Economists were looking for slight gains to income and spending of 0.1% and 0.2%. In July, spending rose a revised 0.7%, while income decreased a revised 0.2%.

In Europe, stocks were headed to close out the worst quarter since 2008. London's FTSE dropped 1.3% and Germany's DAX lost 3%. Japan's Nikkei Average closed off 0.01% and Hong Kong's Hang Seng plummeted 2.32%.

Buyers used the final session of the quarter to snap up defensive sectors such as healthcare and consumer staples, which showed the best performance of Friday's session. Merck (MRK), Wal-Mart (WMT), Johnson & Johnson (JNJ) and Procter & Gamble (PG) were the Dow's top-performers.

Conglomerates were the day's worst-performing stocks with Hewlett-Packard (HPQ), Alcoa (AA) and General Electric (GE) among the Dow's biggest laggards.

Shares across the financial sector also declined. Morgan Stanley (MS) saw its stock drop 10.5% to $13.51 as investors worried about its exposure to European banks despite several analyst reports saying that the fears were unwarranted.

The Financial Select Sector SPDR ETF (XLF) was down by 3.5% at $11.81 and both Bank of America (BAC) and JPMorgan Chase (JPM) traded near the bottom of the Dow.

Of the 4.8 billion shares that traded on the New York Stock Exchange, only 21% rose while 77% declined. Some 2.1 billion stocks changed hands on the Nasdaq.

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