TORONTO -- North American stock markets plunged in morning trading today, although a jump in gold prices and gold stocks helped soften the impact on the Toronto Stock Exchange's main index.

The S&P/TSX index was down 173.48 points or about 1.4 per cent at 12,590.51 after 90 minutes of trading.

That decline was partly softened by a 5.8 per cent increase in a TSX gold subindex as the price of gold rose sharply.

In New York, the major indexes were down more than two per cent.

The Dow Jones industrial average was down 342.07 points at 15,862.76.

The broader S&P 500 composite index declined 39.84 points to 1,840.21 and the Nasdaq composite lost 114.82 points -- 2.6 per cent -- to 4,248.32.

In Europe, the FTSE 100 in London, CAC 40 in Paris and Germany's DAX were down about three per cent.

The loonie traded at 71.63 cents US, down 0.27 from Friday's close.

On the commodity markets, the April gold contract rose $35.00 to US$1,192.80 an ounce and the March crude contract was down 49 cents at US$30.40 per barrel.