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U.S. Stock Markets Fall Sharply; Apple Replaces Exxon Mobil As Most Valuable

U.S. stocks stumbled out of the gate Wednesday, falling more than 300 points in the first few minutes of trading. Continued fears of a slow U.S. economy and fresh doubts about debt in Europe — especially in France, where markets punished bank stocks — doused any hope of a continued rally.

Update at 4 p.m. ET:As the markets closed, the Dow Jones Industrial Average stood at 10,719, a loss of more than 520 points, or 4.6 percent. The S&P 500 index also lost ground, dropping by 54 points, or 4.6 percent.

Just 15 minutes before the markets closed, the Dow Jones index had lost 458 points, but momentum kept pushing the index down.

The day's trading left Apple Inc. as the nation's most valuable company, replacing Exxon Mobil Corp., according to the AP.

Update at 12:04 p.m. ET: Just after noon, the Dow Jones Index stood at a 375 decline — a slight moderation from the earlier steep fall.

European stock markets have closed sharply down, "led lower by a steep sell-off in banking shares, with Societe Generale down more than 21 percent at one point on a slew of rumours about the bank," according to Reuters.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy cut his vacation short Wednesday, as the threat of a credit downgrade loomed over his nation.

"No other eurozone economy with a triple-A rating has a higher debt than France's," the AP reports, "around 85 percent of national income."

Update at 10:27 a.m. ET: The decline has continued, as the Dow Jones industrial average has fallen 413 points, or 3.7 percent. On the bright side, Reuters has just reported that U.S. wholesale inventories saw only a small rise in June, a result of a rebound in sales. Our original post continues:

The sharp drop came despite a rally that buoyed U.S. indexes Tuesday, and rallies from the European and Asian markets Wednesday. Global investors seemed to take heart in the Federal Reserve's pledge to maintain low interest rates and stabilize the U.S. economy.

Analysts say that U.S. investors' confidence remains fragile, as the economy continues to lack momentum.

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Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.