Stocks plunged while bonds surged higher Friday after the government reported payrolls in August fell for the first time in four years rather than rising as had been expected. The Dow Jones industrial average fell more than 200 points.

In late morning trading, the Dow fell 212.17, or 1.59 percent, to 13,151.18.

Broader stock indicators also skidded. The Standard & Poor's 500 index fell 23.79, or 1.61 percent, to 1,454.76, and the Nasdaq composite index fell 54.07, or 2.07 percent, to 2,560.25.

Bonds, meanwhile, soared following the jobs report as investors sought safety. The yield on the benchmark 10-year Treasury note, which moves inversely to its price, skidded to 4.39 percent from 4.51 percent late Thursday.

Traders were unpleasantly surprised by the Labor Department's report that payrolls fell by 4,000 in August, the first decline since August 2003, while the unemployment rate held steady at 4.6 percent as expected.

Wall Street was waiting for the report as it tries to determine how well the economy is holding up under the weight of a faltering housing market, a rise in mortgage defaults and tightening availability of credit. While the report is backward looking and not predictive, traders regard it as an important reading of the economy's health.

"This certainly cements the case for a Fed action at the next meeting. The debate has really become about whether it will be 25 or 50 basis points," said Zach Pandl, economist at Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc, referring to whether the central bank would reduce rates by a quarter point or a half a percentage point. He expects the Fed will reduce rates by 25 basis points when it meets Sept. 18.

The dollar fell sharply following the employment report and as the likelihood of an interest rate cut appeared to increase. Dollar-based assets would earn less interest if the Fed were to cut rates. In addition, gold prices rose because some investors would be expected to abandon a weakening dollar and move into gold if the central bank cuts rates.