The Dow Jones industrial average fell 74 points to 13,099 just after 10 a.m. EDT and was headed for its fourth consecutive decline. The Standard & Poor's 500, which earlier this week hit its highest point in four years, was down seven to 1,407.
The price of gold climbed for a second straight day after the Federal Reserve hinted that it may step in soon with additional help for the economy unless the recovery picks up dramatically.
The Labor Department said the number of people seeking unemployment assistance rose by 4,000 last week to 372,000. Economists said that could be a sign that August job growth will be slower than it was in July.
Major indexes in Germany, France, Greece and Spain were also down. Greece is trying to implement the reforms that Germany is demanding so it can keep its rescue loans, but the process has been slow.
China reported lower manufacturing activity, and the Bank of China said that profit growth fell sharply this year.
In early U.S. trading, all 10 major categories of stock in the S&P were down. Technology stocks and materials companies fell the most, while health care stocks were down only slightly.
The price of gold rose $27, or 1.6 percent, to $1,667 per ounce. Some investors buy metals, particularly gold, to protect against inflation and take advantage of a weaker dollar when they believe the Fed is about to pump money into the economy.
The Nasdaq composite index was down 25 points at 3,048.
U.S. Treasury prices rose for a second straight day. The yield on the benchmark 10-year note fell to 1.67 percent from 1.70 percent late Wednesday.
Big Lots was the worst-performing worst in the S&P 500 after it reported a sharp drop in quarterly profit and slashed its forecast for the rest of the year. The stock was down $8.21, or 21 percent, at $30.61.
Among other stocks making significant moves:
— Hewlett-Packard lost $1.21, or 6.3 percent, to $17.99. The world's largest maker of printers and PCs reported weak quarterly results and took a huge charge to write down the value of a recent acquisition.