NEW YORK — Bank stocks were shaken Thursday after a steep drop in China’s exports made investors worry again about the health of the world’s second-largest economy. U.S. stocks gradually recovered most of their losses as safer investments like utilities traded higher.
Indexes took big losses early on after major Asian markets skidded overnight. The Dow Jones industrial average dropped as much as 184 points. Industries that depend heavily on China and global economic growth, like technology and energy companies, also fell. As the day wore on, though, investors bought utilities, real estate investment trusts, and other stocks that tend to pay big dividends.
And they seemed to reconsider how well China’s economy is doing. Over the last few months it appeared to be getting stronger, said David Chalupnik, head of equities for Nuveen Asset Management.
"We’ve had three months of good data out of China," he said. "The question is, is it just one number or is this the start of a new trend?"
The Dow dipped 45.26 points, or 0.2 percent, to 18,098.94. The Standard & Poor’s 500 index fell 6.63 points, or 0.3 percent, to 2,132.55. The Nasdaq composite sank 25.69 points, or 0.5 percent, 5,213.33.
China’s exports fell 10 percent in September compared with a year ago. That was worse than analysts expected, and it was also a much bigger drop than in August. China has been critical to global economic growth for a quarter century, and since the summer of 2015, stocks have periodically been roiled by worries that China’s economy was weakening.
Financial firms took the largest losses as investors feared the latest reports on China mean banks won’t lend as much money to consumers and businesses around the world.
Bank of America fell 20 cents, or 1.2 percent, to $15.83 and Bank of New York Mellon skidded $1.03, or 2.6 percent, to $39.09.
"They need U.S. growth and they need global growth to really grow earnings," said Chalupnik said.
Wells Fargo lost 57 cents, or 1.3 percent, to $44.75 after it said Chairman and CEO John Stumpf retired as it deals with a scandal over its sales practices. Last month regulators said Wells Fargo opened bank and credit card accounts without telling customers and also moved money between accounts and created fake email addresses to sign customers up for online banking. The second largest U.S. bank has been fined $185 million for its actions, and its stock is down 11 percent since early September.
Longtime executive Tim Sloan is replacing Stumpf as CEO and Stephen Sanger becomes chairman.
Stocks that pay big dividends did better than the rest of the market, and utility companies and real estate investment trusts traded higher. Dominion Resources added $1.15, or 1.6 percent, to $73.31 and Duke Energy picked up $1.29, or 1.7 percent, to $77.94.
Investors also bought government bonds, which sent yields sharply lower. The yield on the 10-year Treasury note slid to 1.74 percent from 1.77 percent.
Energy companies also declined even though energy prices moved higher. Chevron slipped $1.36, or 1.3 percent, to $100.79 and Cabot Oil & Gas shed $1.11, or 4.7 percent, to $22.75.
Companies that rely heavily on sales to China fell. Chipmaking equipment company Applied Materials shed 78 cents, or 2.7 percent, to $27.86 and security software maker Symantec gave up 66 cents, or 2.6 percent, to $24.28. Copper and gold producer Freeport-McMoRan gave up 41 cents, or 4.1 percent, to $9.64.
France’s CAC 40 retreated 1.1 percent and Germany’s DAX fell 1 percent. The FTSE 100 in Britain was down 0.7 percent. In Japan the Nikkei 225 lost 0.4 percent while South Korea’s Kospi fell 0.9 percent. Hong Kong’s Hang Seng index fell 1.6 percent. Thailand’s benchmark index sank 2.4 percent after the death of King Bhumibol Adulyadej. The king had reigned for 70 years, which made him the longest serving head of state in the world.
Airlines moved higher after Delta suggested it thinks airfares have reached a low point. The company reported a strong profit thanks in part to cheap jet fuel, and it plans to cut capacity to deal with lower fares and rising salaries. The company also Delta rose 74 cents, or 1.9 percent, to $40.01 and American Airlines climbed $1.86, or 5 percent, to $39.24.
Ulta Salon climbed after it raised its guidance and gave strong estimates for the third quarter. The beauty products retailer rose $27.17, or 11.4 percent, to $266.14.
Railroad operator CSX climbed after its earnings were better than expected even though coal volumes keep falling. The stock rose 94 cents, or 3.1 percent, to $31.15.
Oil prices recovered from an early loss. Benchmark U.S. crude rose 26 cents to $50.44 a barrel in New York. Brent crude, the international standard, rose 22 cents to $52.03 a barrel in London.
In other energy trading, the price of natural gas jumped 13 cents, or 4.1 percent, to $3.34 per 1,000 cubic feet. Wholesale gasoline added 2 cents to $1.48 a gallon. Heating oil picked up 1 cent to $1.58 a gallon.
The Energy Department said a colder winter will probably mean slightly higher household energy bills for all natural gas, electricity, heating oil and propane.
The dollar fell to 103.60 yen from 104.25 yen. The euro rose to $1.1053 from $1.1011.
The price of gold rose $3.80 to $1,257.60 an ounce. Silver fell 5 cents to $17.46 an ounce. Copper lost 5 cents, or 2.5 percent, to $2.12 a pound.