On Friday, traders did something they rarely do: they sold what are considered to be the world's safest short-term investments. Traders typically buy short term U.S. Treasurys on Friday because they want their money in a safe place in case something happens over the weekend to rattle markets.
But this week, they instead bought longer-duration bonds as concerns grew that the federal government may not be able to pay all of its bills next month. Yields on bonds due in one month rose higher than those due in six months. The higher the yield, the higher the implied risk of the bond.
Analysts say it's a clear sign a short-term default is a growing possibility.
The sell-off in short-term Treasurys shows that "the market is very concerned," said Thomas Tzitzouris, head of fixed income research at Strategas Research Partners. "It's not panic, but we are pre-positioning in case something goes wrong over the weekend."
Stocks continued a weeklong slide after a dismal report on economic growth added to the anxiety. Major indexes erased some of their early losses on Friday after President Barack Obama said there were many paths to a compromise on raising the debt limit.
The Dow Jones industrial average fell 96.87 points, or 0.8 percent, to close at 12,143.24
The combination of bad economic news and growing worries about a possible debt default was evident in nearly every measure of investor confidence:
— The Dow Jones industrial average had a sixth straight day of losses, a string that has erased 581.17 points.
— All 10 industry groups in the S&P 500 stock index fell.
— Gold rose nearly 1 percent to $1,631 an ounce.
— A measure of stock market volatility, the VIX, rose 6 percent.
— The cost to protect against a U.S. default within the next year reached a record high. The cost to insure Treasurys for one year jumped 54 percent this week.
Longer-term government bond prices rose as traders saw them as less likely to be affected by short-term positioning in Washington. The yield on the 10-year Treasury bond fell to 2.79 percent, its lowest level of the year. Bond prices move in the opposite direction of their yields.
The Standard and Poor's 500 index lost 8.39 points, or 0.6 percent, to 1,292.28. The Nasdaq composite fell 9.87, or 0.4 percent, to 2,756.38
If Congress fails to act by Tuesday, the U.S. may not be able to pay all its financial obligations. That includes interest payments on bonds and the salaries of federal employees. A default on U.S. Treasury debt could wreak havoc on financial markets and the economy.
Many analysts continue to believe a deal to raise the country's borrowing limit will be made before the Aug. 2 deadline.
"It seems unlikely that Congress would choose financial Armageddon over some type of compromise," said Joseph S. Tanious, a market strategist with J.P. Morgan Asset Management.
Some argue that the market's recent downturn is overshadowing strong corporate earnings reports. They also say the market is ignoring other reasons to believe the economy will bounce back in the second half of the year.
"It's a very confusing time, but once this cloud lifts, market participants are going to turn around and say, 'This isn't so bad.'," said John Canally, an economist with LPL Financial. "It's definitely going to be a rocky couple of days."
The government reported early Friday that economic growth slowed in the first half of the year to its weakest pace since the recession ended two years ago.
Some investors said that the economic report wasn't as bad as it first appeared. Phil Orlando, chief strategist at Federated Investors, said that the report was a "rearview mirror view of an economy that was struggling with the impact of the earthquake in Japan and high commodity prices." Orlando said he believes that rising corporate profits and a rebound in the auto industry will push stocks higher for the rest of the year.
Merck fell 2 percent even after the company reported strong earnings. Chevron dropped 1 percent despite better second-quarter earnings.
Housewares maker Newell Rubbermaid Inc. jumped 8 percent after reporting that its profit rose 13 percent as strong demand from emerging markets offset weakness in the U.S. Expedia Inc. gained 9 percent after the travel website operator said its income rose more than analysts had expected. It credited an increase in the number of travel bookings and higher prices for plane tickets and hotel rooms.
The Dow is still up 4.9 percent for the year, but it is down 667.3 points, or 5.2 percent, from its highest point of the year, which it reached on April 29.
Small-company stocks fared worse than the rest of the market as investors sold stocks they consider to be the most risky. The Russell 2000, which measures the smallest stocks on the market, fell 5.3 percent this week, worse than 3.9 percent decline in the S&P 500 index.
Two stocks fell for every one that rose on the New York Stock Exchange. Consolidated volume was above average at 4.5 billion shares.