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Stocks recover in the close but Dow holds triple-digit loss

U.S. stocks closed down on Wednesday but recovered significantly from historic intraday losses amid concerns about Europe, Ebola and the economy.

The Russell 2000 and transports turned positive as stocks came off lows in the last half hour before the close. S&P 400 midcaps also traded higher, and the Nasdaq traded briefly in the green.

"The Russell 2000 led the selloff and is actually the first to find the bottom here," Art Hogan, chief market strategist at Wunderlich Securities, said.

He also attributed the late-session gains to stabilization in oil prices and high trade volume during the middle of the day.

On the New York Mercantile Exchange, crude oil futures shaved gains to settle down 6 cents at $81.78 a barrel—nearly a 4-year low—with gold shaving gains to settle $10.50 higher at $1,242 an ounce.

Stocks lost nearly 3 percent during the day but recovered in the close. Despite ending the day positive, small- and mid-cap stocks remained in correction territory.

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The Dow Jones Industrial Average closed down 173 points, or 1.06 percent, at 16,141.74, with JPMorgan Chase the greatest decliner as six blue-chips gained, led by Johnson & Johnson.

In a cumulative move of about 1200 points in losses and gains, the Dow came off session lows of a 458-point drop to below 16,000, a level it has not breached since February 14. The drop was the index's largest intraday loss since a 552-point decline on Sept. 22, 2011. The Dow has had triple-digit moves for about 78 percent of the last 23 trading sessions.

Earlier, the index fell as much as 369.59 points in the open, or about 2 percent, with the initial decline led by Intel and Disney.

The S&P 500 recovered losses to close down just 15.2 points, or 0.81 percent, at 1,862.49, with financials knocked the hardest and materials and energy the only sectors of 10 gaining.

Prior to the start of trading, Bank of America posted a smaller-than-expected loss, while BlackRock reported better-than-expected earnings.

The Nasdaq dipped into correction territory and even turned positive before closing down 11.8 percent, at 0.28 percent, at 4,215.32.

The U.S. dollar edged lower against major world currencies.

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Decliners were one step ahead of advancers on the New York Stock Exchange in the close, with an exchange volume of 1.2 billion and a composite volume of 6.1 billion, the highest in nearly three years.

Just before 2 p.m. ET, volume on the New York Stock Exchange matched "normal" volume for the entire session—3.5 billion shares.

"It's significant because people are truly unloading their positions," JJ Kinahan, chief strategist at TD Ameritrade, said. "Once we broke that 200-day moving average [people said] let's get out and start over."

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The CBOE Volatility Index (VIX), widely considered the best gauge of fear in the market, cut half its gains after rising as much as 35 percent to trade above 30, its highest level since November 2011.

The U.S. 10-year Treasury note yield dipped below 2 percent for the first time since May 2013, while U.S. economic data was weaker than expected.

In the morning, European stocks closed more than 2 percent lower on Wednesday as investors shunned risky assets on fears of crumbling global growth, weak economic data, and concerns about the political situation in Greece.

Read MoreEuro zone crisis 2.0? Greek stocks tank

"We're probably going to follow the Europe" markets," Peter Cardillo, chief market economist at Rockwell Global Capital, said. Despite stocks closing in the red, he saw some signs of stability.

"I think investors should take advantage of this selloff," he said.

Kim Forrest, senior equity analyst at Fort Pitt Capital, agreed.

"The correction from the top is giving us room to buy companies that we like," she said. "If you are long-term investor, three to five years, this should not be a concern."

In the United States, transports recovered completely to close up 0.23 percent after a fall of about 2 percent in late morning trade led by a decline in airlines on reports that the new Ebola patient flew the day before falling ill. However, analysts said there were no reports of flight cancellations due to the disease and added that the news had more of a psychological effect.

"Ebola is in the background," said Peter Boockvar, chief market analyst at The Lindsey Group. "It feeds generally into global growth concerns."

Stocks held to a downward trend after the Fed released its "Beige Book" that said the economy is growing at a "modest to moderate" pace.

In the hour before the close, Wal-Mart fell more than 3 percent on news that the retailer cut its growth guidance.

The reports "helped exaggerate anxieties investors had recently on full valuations," Mark Luschini, chief investment strategist at Janney Montgomery Scott, said. "I think markets are working off technical levels."

Business inventories rose less than expected in August, and U.S. retail sales fell 0.3 percent in September, slightly more than the expected 0.2 percent decline. The producer price index for September fell 0.1 percent as opposed to expectations of a 0.1 percent gain.

"In general the only news the market reacts to now is negative news," Hogan said. Even "economic data is just background noise."

Overall, analysts focused on technicals and didn't think markets were seeing capitulation.

"I think this is just a correction," said Randy Frederick, managing director of trading and derivatives at Charles Schwab. "I'm a long ways from saying we're heading into a bear market."

"The only good stuff is the earnings, but that's backward looking," he said. "We're going to have a pretty solid earnings season."

He added that the pullback would likely cause the Fed to postpone an interest rate hike and that low rates were pressuring financial institutions' profit margins.

Trader on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.
Getty Images
Trader on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.

U.S. stock index futures lost about 1 percent, with the Dow futures losing more than 150 points, as investors were unnerved by word of another Ebola case diagnosed in the U.S. Also driving futures lower was a major drop in the Greek markets that drove a flight to safety in German bunds, with the 10-year bond trading below 0.8 percent. Other concerns included a deteriorating euro zone economic outlook, fed by another credit rating blow for France, and "free falling" inflation expectations dominated the market.

Read MoreGreek bond yields pass 7% as worries return

U.S. stocks mostly advanced on Tuesday with the S&P 500 and Nasdaq Composite halting their worst three-day rout since 2011 as investors considered a mixed set of earnings from JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup and Wells Fargo. Intel released positive after-the-bell results and shares of the company gained more than 2 percent in late trading.

Earnings are expected from American Express, eBay and Netflix after the bell.

On tap this week:

Wednesday

Earnings: eBay, Netflix

Thursday

Earnings: Goldman Sachs Group, Google

8:30 a.m.: Weekly jobless claims for week ending Oct. 11

9:15 a.m.: Industrial production for September

10 a.m.: Home Builders Index for October

10 a.m.: Philly Fed

Friday

Earnings: General Electric, Morgan Stanley

8:30 a.m.: Housing starts for September

9:55 a.m.: Consumer sentiment for October