Dow falls nearly 200 points on concerns over Europe

Financial markets slumped Thursday after the head of Europe’s central bank dashed hopes that the bank was preparing to help extinguish the region’s debt crisis.

The Dow Jones industrial average dropped nearly 200 points on a day when investors around the world reacted to every word spoken and rumor spread at a summit of European Union leaders.

The markets could be headed for another wild ride on today as European officials try to strike a deal to mandate greater oversight of government budgets.

The Dow fell 198.67 points, or 1.6 percent, to close at 11,997.70. The drop was the worst since Nov. 23 and ended a three-day run of modest gains. The last time the Dow closed below 12,000 was Nov. 29.

The Standard & Poor’s 500 index fell 26.66, or 2.1 percent, to 1,234.35. The Nasdaq lost 52.83, or 2 percent, to 2,596.38.

Fewer people applying for unemployment benefits

A steady decline in the number of people applying for weekly unemployment benefits is the latest signal that the economy has strengthened and businesses may be poised to step up hiring.

Applications fell last week to a seasonally adjusted 381,000, the Labor Department said Thursday. That’s the lowest level since late February.

And a four-week average for applications, which smooths week-to-week fluctuations, fell for the ninth time in 11 weeks to an eight-month low.

The downward trend in unemployment benefit applications bolsters the view that the economy has improved from its spring slump, when many feared another recession was likely. Consumer confidence is up, retailers reported a strong start to the holiday shopping season and the unemployment rate fell last month to its lowest point in two and a half years.

Agriculture department passes meat regulations

The U.S. Department of Agriculture released a new but stripped-down antitrust rule Thursday regulating meat companies that’s far less sweeping than initial reforms that ran into strong opposition from businesses and Congress.

The department published the final version of the rule after more than a year of heated debate that pitted the nation’s biggest meat companies against many farmers and ranchers. Congress voted last month to prohibit the USDA from passing most portions of the reform. The companies had claimed the rule could increase costs and raise the price of meat.

“I think it’s unfortunate that Congress chose to intervene in the process and prevent us from going further,” Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said Wednesday in an interview with The Associated Press.

But Vilsack said the remaining provisions would help farmers.

“I think all of these steps we’re taking are important,” he said.

The final version requires that meat companies give farmers the right to opt out of mandatory arbitration clauses in their contracts. Those clauses have upset many farmers, who thought they should have the right to take poultry companies to court for alleged contract violations.

— From news service reports