Insurance stocks took it on the chin from New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, hitting the canvas with a thud that took down the entire market.
Shares of health insurers Aetna Inc., Humana Inc., Cigna Corp. and UnitedHealth Group Inc. dropped by 6 to 13 percent as Spitzer's staff issued more subpoenas in his investigation of price rigging and kickbacks in the insurance business.
Shares of Marsh & McLennan, the insurance brokerage sued by Spitzer last week, continued to fall as the investigation of the industry expanded.
Insurance is the third financial services sector to find itself under the scrutiny of Spitzer, the politically ambitious prosecutor who is building a name for himself in New York politics by taking on New York City's most important industries.
Spitzer has already forced Wall Street to reform the way it issues research on stocks by challenging the pervasive practice of giving favorable recommendations to the stocks of big clients. And he has shaken up mutual fund trading by disclosing that favored clients were allowed to put in orders after the market had closed, virtually guaranteeing they would make profits.
Now he is challenging the way insurance is sold to big clients, who hire insurance brokers to get them the best deal on health insurance for their workers, liability insurance for their products and other coverage. Spitzer charged the brokers with steering business to insurance companies that paid them secret commissions rather than to the insurer who offered the cheapest coverage for the clients.
Shares of American International Group, the big insurance firm that was one of Spitzer's first targets, led the Dow Jones industrial average lower, falling about $2 a share, which produced a loss of about 14 points for the Dow. Also pulling the Dow down was Alcoa Aluminum, which fell along with other metals stocks in response to reports that demand for steel, aluminum and other industrial materials is weakening.
The Dow closed down 59 points at 9,897.62.
The Nasdaq Stock Market composite index fell nearly 14 points to 1,922.90.
The Standard & Poor's 500 stock index lost 11 points, closing at 1,103.23.
Investors also got discouraging economic news today. Inflation picked up, with the consumer price index rising 0.2 percent in September. Housing construction slowed down, with starts off 6 percent last month.
Fear that the housing industry has built itself a bubble that is likely to collapse were downplayed today by Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan. In a speech to a community bankers conference in Washington, Greenspan said he does not anticipate a broad retreat in house prices and is not worried that consumers have borrowed too heavily in taking advantage of the rapidly increasing value of their homes.