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Recession Worries Spur Sell-Off Ahead of Holiday

Investors usually cash out ahead of a holiday weekend and, in this jittery environment, they found their reasons to sell today: a slew of bleak economic reports and a profit warning from Best Buy.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average was down about 60 points in afternoon trading. That piles on Thursday's 200-point slide, the index's 20th triple-digit move of the year. The S&P 500 index and Nasdaq also declined.

Given the data and the Best Buy warning, "I think what you're really doing is adding a little bit of fuel to the fire as far as the bears are concerned," Jack Bouroudjian of Brewer Investment Group, told CNBC. "What it's really doing is taking the buyers and putting them to the sidelines."

Markets have been trading on a day-to-day basis and Friday's economic reports offered bleak views on everything from manufacturing to consumer sentiment.

U.S. import prices rose 1.7 percent in January, more than triple what economists had expected, amid sharp increases in prices of petroleum and food. The Empire State Manufacturing Index dropped to -11.7, the first time the gauge has fallen below zero in nearly three years. Industrial production rose 0.1 percent, as expected, in January. The University of Michigan reported that consumer sentiment fell sharply in early February to levels usually associated with recession.

The latest casualty of the consumer pullback is Best Buy, whose stock was one of the biggest decliners on the S&P after the consumer-electronics retailer warned of a profit decline in fiscal 2008 due to weak January sales. Consumers just didn't hit the stores after the holidays like they have in past years. The chain now expects earnings to be $3.05 to $3.10 a share, down from its earlier estimate of $3.10 to $3.20 a share. Stifel Nicolaus analyst David Schick downgraded the stock to "hold" from "buy," citing the spending slowdown.

Shares of rival Circuit City also declined.

Analysts have been talking about a weak first quarter for some time, but now we've got the data to prove it: Thomson Financial predicts that S&P 500 earnings will slide 0.1 percent as the forecast for financial earnings ballooned to 23 percent.

Bond insurers remained in focus after New York state Insurance Superintendent Eric Dinallo told CNBC Friday that FGIC, the third largest bond insurer, plans to split into two companies. The company recently lost its triple-A bond rating because of subprime-related losses.

The two biggest U.S. bond insurers, MBIA and Ambac Financial Group, told CNBC Thursday that they don't need a government-led bailout despite billions of dollars of losses from subprime-related debt.

UBS shares came under pressure again today after the bank said it could face an additional $18 billion in 2008 writedownsfrom bad subprime mortgages. Bear Stearns shares rose more than 6 percent amid renewed takeover chatter, this time that China's top brokerage firm want to increase its stake in Bear.

Meanwhile, Citigroup was the biggest drag on the Dow after the banking giant barred investors in one of its hedge funds from withdrawing money, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal.

Whole Foods, the biggest decliner on the S&P, tumbled after Lehman Brothers downgraded its rating on the upscale-grocery chain to "underweight."

Shares of Kraft Foods advanced after Warren Buffet's Berkshire Hathaway said Thursday that it now has an 8.6 percent stake in Kraft.

Pfizer, Eli Lilly and Schering-Plough advanced after Goldman Sachs analysts raised their rating on the pharmaceutical sector to "attractive" from "neutral," based on valuation, and said these are their three favorite stocks in the sector.

Airline stocks advanced amid speculation that a Delta - Northwest merger will be announced next week. The S&P airline index rose 1.4 percent.

Taking comments about "sluggish" growth from Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke a step further, former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan, after the closing bell, said that the economy is "clearly on the edge" of a recession and that the situation will continue to erode until housing prices stabilize. Bernanke, while gloomy in his congressional testimony, maintains that the economy will be able to avert recession.

On Thursday, the markets finished lower after three straight gains as investors, looking to trade on any news, jumped on comments from Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke that economic growth will be "sluggish."

Trading volumes are likely to be thin ahead of a long weekend in the U.S., with Wall Street closed Monday for Presidents' Day.

Write to Cindy Perman at cindy.perman@nbcuni.com.