By Angela Moon
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Global equity markets tumbled on Thursday following a glut of data from Europe and the U.S. that pointed to slow economic growth but failed to ease concerns the U.S. Federal Reserve may begin to withdraw the stimulus that fuelled the recent equity rally.
The latest bout of selling came after data showed the number of Americans filing new claims for unemployment benefits rose last week while consumer prices were flat in January.
In Europe, a surprisingly weak euro zone Purchasing Managers Index (PMI) data for February dashed hopes of an early recovery for the recession-hit region.
The combination of factors put the MSCI world equity index on course for its biggest daily loss of year.
The Dow Jones industrial average was down 52.00 points, or 0.37 percent, at 13,875.54. The Standard & Poor's 500 Index (MXP:^GSPC - News) was down 6.86 points, or 0.45 percent, at 1,505.09. The Nasdaq Composite Index was down 16.93 points, or 0.53 percent, at 3,147.48.
The S&P 500 index dropped 1.2 percent on Wednesday, its biggest decline since November 14, after minutes from the U.S. Federal Reserve's most recent meeting suggested the central bank may slow or stop buying bonds sooner than expected.
The benchmark S&P index is down 1.9 percent in the past two sessions but is still up more than 5 percent for the year, leading many analysts to view the Fed minutes as one of the triggers for an overdue pullback in equities, along with the upcoming sequestration in Washington and a decrease in consumer spending.
The sequestration - automatic across-the-board spending cuts put in place as part of a larger congressional budget fight - are due to kick in March 1 unless lawmakers agree on an alternative.
"It's the sequester, it's the knee-jerk reaction to yesterday's Fed minutes and it's the realization the consumer is slowing," said Phil Orlando, chief equity market strategist, at Federated Investors in New York.
"I'd love to see a healthy 5 percent correction," he said. "Let's wash out some of the weak hands and set up for a better move during the year."
In other data, financial data firm Markit said its "flash," or preliminary, U.S. Manufacturing Purchasing Managers Index slowed to 55.2 this month from 55.8, which had been the best showing since April, 2012.
Europe's Eurofirst 300 index shed 1.3 percent, close to its biggest daily loss of the year so far, while London's FTSE 100, Paris's CAC-40 (.FCHI) and Frankfurt's DAX were as much as 1.8 percent lower.
Emerging stocks were at their lowest levels since December as signs of a monetary tightening in China added to the growth and Fed policy concerns; traders speculated on a shift in monetary policy after China's central bank conducted a record high liquidity draining operation from the banking system.
A statement by outgoing premier Wen Jiabao expressing renewed concern about housing prices has also fuelled concerns that monetary policy may soon tighten.
The euro dropped to a six-week low against the dollar and a three-week trough against the yen on Thursday in the wake of data showing a struggling euro zone economy and amid uncertainty ahead of Italy's election at the weekend.
Expectations that the U.S. Federal Reserve may stop providing monetary stimulus also helped the dollar gain broadly.
"The PMI news is not good and shows the euro zone is under economic duress and you add to the current uncertainty ahead of the Italian elections and we have a euro that is struggling to get ahead," said Matthew Lifson, senior trader and analyst at Cambridge Mercantile Group in Princeton, New Jersey.
Prospects about a fragmented parliament after Italy's national election could trigger a sell-off in the peripheral bond market and weigh on the euro.
The euro dropped around 0.8 percent to $1.3166, its lowest since January 10, and well below a 15-month peak of $1.3711 reached on February 1. The euro last traded at $1.3199, down 0.6 percent.
Against the yen, the euro fell to 122.23 yen, its weakest since late January. It was last at 123.03, down 1 percent.
In commodity markets, oil fell to a three-week low below $114 a barrel on Thursday.
The drop extended Brent crude's largest one-day slide in 2013 on Wednesday, alongside declines in other commodities and equities. Rumours that a hedge fund was liquidating positions also had helped pressure prices, although there was no evidence of liquidation by any specific fund.
Brent crude fell as low as $113.50, the lowest intra-day price since January 29. U.S. crude slipped by $2.18 to $93.04.
U.S. Treasuries extended price gains on Thursday, with the benchmark 10-year Treasury notes trading 12/32 higher in price to yield 1.97 percent, down from 2.01 percent late Wednesday.
(Reporting By Angela Moon; Editing by Nick Zieminski)