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Stocks Drop 200 Amid Economic Worries

Stocks ended sharply lower Thursday amid anxiety over a fresh round of layoffs, dismal same-store sales numbers and the prospect of tomorrow's jobs report.

After wobbling through most of the session, the Dow Jones Industrial Average ended down 215.45, or 2.5% at 8376.24, snapping a two-day winning streak and giving back all of the prior session's 172-point gain. However, that was off the day's low -- the blue-chip index was down about 300 at one point.

The S&P 500 index and Nasdaq shed 2.9 percent and 3.1 percent, respectively.

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Still, compared to the recent wild swings of 400 points or more, it wasn't so bad.

Traders said they think the market may just be getting used to the flood of bleak economic news and that recent volatility may be subsiding.

The CBOE volatility index , widely seen as the best gauge of fear in the market, was hanging around 60, where it ended Wednesday.

And, the market got a little more wind in its sails as Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke called on the government to ramp up efforts to stem soaring home foreclosures.

"More needs to be done," Bernanke said plainly.

But, stocks slipped back into the red as the second round of hearings on an auto bailout got underway.

General Motors shares skidded; Ford eventually gave up its gains as well.

>> See a live-streaming video of the hearings.

Today's economic reports were bad, but not as bad as expected.

Factory orders fell by 5.1 percent, the biggest drop in eight years, in October, but that was better than the 5.4-percent drop expected. September was revised downward to show a 3.1-percent decline, compared with the prior estimate of a 2.5-percent drop.

Jobless claims fell by 21,000 to 509,000 last week, the Labor Department reported. Economists had expected claims to rise by 11,000.

Tomorrow brings the main event: the November jobs report.

Economists expect to see another 340,000 jobs were shaved off payrolls in November, after the loss of 240,000 jobs in October, according to a Reuters survey. The unemployment rate is expected to tick up to 6.8 percent — the highest rate in 15 years — from 6.5 percent in October.

One of the biggest culprits, it seems, is retail. Retailers typically hire more than half a million seasonal employees at this time of year, which would have offset losses in the financial sector and elsewhere. But this year, retailers are expected to keep new hires to a minimum as they struggle just to survive this gloomy holiday season.

November will mark the 11th straight month of job losses, with more than a million jobs lost since the start of the new year.

And, it seems, the worst is yet to come. Economists expect the worst of the layoffs will hit in the next three to four months.

Wal-Mart reported its same-store sales rose 3.4 percent, better than expected, but outside of the discount giant, November retail-sales results were dismalas consumers postponed much of their shopping outside of essentials.

>> Check in on how the holiday season is shaping up at CNBC's Holiday Central.

Dow components AT&T and DuPont both said they would slash thousands of jobs—AT&T plans to cut 12,000 jobs, or 4 percent of its workforce, while DuPont said it would eliminate 2,500 positions.

Pharmaceutical giant and Dow component Mercklowered its 2009 earnings forecast due to weak sales of several of its key medicines. The company said it expected earnings, excluding special items, of $3.15 to $3.30 per share. Analysts polled by Reuters Estimates were expecting $3.52, on average.

Elsewhere, telecom Nokiacut its forecast for the second time in three weekson a belief that the market downturn had accelerated and 2009 would be a difficult year.

Swiss banking regulator Credit Suisse warned on its fourth-quarter results and said it would cut another 5,300 jobs.

Reflecting the global stretch of the credit crisis, the European Central Bank cut interest rates by three-quarters of a percentage point to 2.50 percent, the biggest cut in the central bank's 10-year existence. The Bank of England cut its prime lending rate by a full percentage point to a 57-year low of 2 percent.

>> Check interests rates around the world.

The moves, though, had little effect on US markets amid anxiety over the profit warnings and layoffs hitting closer to home.

Meanwhile, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson is considering whether to ask Congress for the remaining $350 billion of the financial bailout fund. White House aides asked President-elect Barack Obama's transition team about the funds, according to an Obama aide.

And top executives at Citigroup may wave their bonuses this year as the ongoing credit crisis results in intense scrutiny of the once bumper end-of-year payouts, the Financial Times reported.

Still to Come:

FRIDAY: November jobs report; consumer credit

Send comments to cindy.perman@nbcuni.com.