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Stock markets sell off: investors nervous about China growth, Ukraine crisis

TORONTO - North American stock markets sold off Thursday amid China economic growth concerns that have pressured markets all week, as well as increasing jitters over the crisis in Ukraine.

The S&P/TSX composite index dropped 73.86 points to 14,245.14 with losses limited by the gold sector as traders looking for safety sent bullion prices higher for a fourth day.

The Canadian dollar rose 0.51 of a cent to 90.47 cents US.

New York indexes tumbled with the Dow industrials falling 231.19 points to 16,108.89.

The Nasdaq fell 62.91 points to 4,260.42 and the S&P 500 index gave back 21.85 points to 1,846.35.

Traders grew cautious ahead of a referendum in Ukraine's Crimea region on Sunday that will ask residents if they want the territory to become part of Russia. Russian forces have already seized control of Crimea and its parliament has given President Vladimir Putin permission to use the military to protect Russian speakers in Ukraine.

Meanwhile, Chinese industrial production rose by a lower than anticipated 8.6 per cent in the first two months of this year.

Also, China’s premier, Li Keqiang, said that his country will keep this year’s economic expansion strong enough to create new jobs but will emphasize market-opening reform and the environment over hitting its official growth target of 7.5 per cent.

"So, the Wild East is over now, and they’re moving to a more managed scenario, they’re going to tighten the screws," said Wes Mills, chief investment officer, Scotia Private Client Group.

"And sure, it’s a slower growth kind of environment and in the long run it’s good; in the short run, it’s got the commodity guys nervous."

Copper prices have slid nine per cent over the past five sessions while the TSX base metals segment has been by far the worst performer this week, down over nine per cent.

The May contract for the metal lost four cents to US$2.92 a pound Thursday and the base metals sector was 1.22 per cent lower.

More than demand issues have weighed on copper. The metal is also used for financing transactions and worries about corporate defaults have prompted concerns that a wave of such failures could result in a massive liquidation of copper on the markets.

Oil prices edged up 21 cents to US$98.20 a barrel, but the energy sector slipped 0.21 per cent.

Financials were also a major drag, down 0.84 per cent.

Bullion prices ended the session at their highest close since early September 2013 amid concerns centred on the Ukraine-Russian crises, rising $1.90 to US$1,372.40 an ounce and the gold sector was ahead about 2.25 per cent.

In corporate news, shares in Empire Company Ltd. (TSX: EMP.A), fell $2.12 to $68.10 as the parent of supermarket chain Sobeys Inc. reported that quarterly net earnings slumped to $400,000 or nil per diluted share compared with $74.1 million or $1.09 per share in the year-earlier period. Ex-items, earnings were 84 cents per share, below analyst estimates of $1.23 per share.

Media giant Quebecor Inc. (TSX:QBR.B) posted adjusted earnings from continuing operations of $68 million or 55 cents per share, while revenues remained relatively flat at $1.12 billion. Analysts had called for 53 cents of adjusted earnings on $1.15 billion in revenues and its shares dipped 15 cents to $24.79.

The Canadian Press

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