Bernanke warns of more economic pain
The misery worsened on Wall Street Tuesday, with stocks piling on losses late in the session and bringing the two-day decline in the Dow Jones industrials to more than 875 points amid escalating worries about credit markets and the financial sector.
The Dow lost more than 500 points and all the major indexes slid more than 5 percent. The Standard & Poor’s 500 index saw its first close below 1,000 in five years.
Steps by the Federal Reserve to reinvigorate the dormant credit markets ultimately weren’t enough to calm nervous investors. News about financial companies only added to their despondent mood.
“The calls I’m getting — every money manager I deal with, and every client I talk to — are just very emotional. This is a very, very emotional time, and most of them are taking steps to shore up their defenses, reducing exposure to stocks just to defend their portfolios,” said Hugh Johnson, chairman and chief investment officer of Johnson Illington Advisors.
The magnitude of the stock market’s plunge is reflected in the Dow’s grim stats:
— It has fallen 33.3 percent since its record close of 14,164.53, a year ago Thursday.
— Tuesday’s close was its lowest close in five years, since Sept. 30, 2003.
— In just five trading days this month, and in the fourth quarter, it is down about 1,400 points, or 13 percent.
The Dow’s percentage loss Tuesday was 5.11 percent, actually a better performance than the 5.74 percent suffered by the S&P, the market indicator most watched by traders and anlaysts. The Nasdaq composite dropped 5.8 percent.
Meanwhile, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke warned in a speech Tuesday that the financial crisis could prolong the difficulty the economy is facing. While his remarks were widely regarded as a sign that an interest rate cut could be in the offing, Wall Street appeared little comforted and focused on his downbeat assessment.
Earlier, the Fed announced plans to buy massive amounts of corporate debt to jump-start lending in the markets where many companies turn for short-term loans called commercial paper. The evaporation of faith that loans will be repaid has lenders weary and is making it more difficult and expensive for businesses and consumers to borrow.
The credit markets did show some slight signs of easing as demand for safe-haven investments decreased, though that offered little comfort to investors highly anxious about the decreased levels of lending and their impact on the overall economy. The markets seized up last month after Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. declared bankruptcy and the government stepped in to rescue insurer American International Group Inc.
The Fed’s latest move to lubricate the credit markets stops short of a broad interest rate reduction that some investors say is necessary to restore confidence in the market. Other market watchers argue, however, that more focused steps like Fed’s decision to buy commercial paper are what’s needed.
Investors remained worried about financial companies like Bank of America Corp., which fell after slashing its dividend and reporting that its third-quarter profit fell 68 percent. The stock fell $8.45, or 26 percent, to $23.77 Tuesday. It was by far the steepest decliner among the 30 stocks that comprise the Dow industrials.
And a rumor that Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group Inc. was pulling out of a deal to acquire up to 24.9 percent of the voting shares of Morgan Stanley sent the investment bank’s stock tumbling $5.85, or 25 percent, to $17.65. The companies denied the rumor, but the Street was panicky enough that it still sent Morgan Stanley and other financials tumbling.
Investors are fearful that financial companies will continue to face cash shortages even with efforts in Washington and by other governments to resuscitate lending.
“It’s such a widespread loss of confidence and, to some extent, a race for the exits,” Johnson said.
Stocks ended lower for the fifth straight session. According to preliminary calculations, the Dow fell 508.39, or 5.11 percent, to 9,447.11. The drop came a day after the blue chips fell below 10,000 for the first time in four years. The Dow skidded as much as 800 points on Monday before finishing with a loss of 370.
Broader indexes also fell. The S&P 500 index declined 60.66, or 5.74 percent, to 996.23, the first close below the 1,000 mark since September 2003. The Nasdaq composite index fell 108.08, or 5.80 percent, to 1,754.88.
The dollar was mostly lower against other major currencies, while gold prices rose.
Oil prices rebounded after plunging Monday to an eight-month low on concerns a global recession will undermine demand for crude. Light, sweet crude rose $2.25 to settle at $90.06 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange.
Concerns about the credit markets still fed demand for the relative safety of government debt, though pressures eased. The yield on the three-month Treasury bill, which moves opposite its price, rebounded to 0.76 percent from 0.50 percent late Monday. Demand for short-term Treasurys remains high because of their safety; investors are willing to take extremely low returns just to have their money in a secure place.
Some investors moved out of longer-term Treasury bonds, which don’t draw as much demand as shorter-term debt in times of fear. The yield on the 10-year note rose to 3.51 percent from 3.50 percent late Monday.
Investors are still hoping to see other moves from the Fed to boost confidence. Australia’s central bank lowered interest rates by the largest amount since 1992 in a surprise move, and that reignited hopes that others, including the Fed and European Central Bank, might follow suit.
Though not giving the market a rate cut, the Fed has taken other steps to help unclog the credit markets. On Tuesday, policymakers provided more details about when it will make $900 billion in short-term loans available to squeezed banks.
The loans are made available to banks through auctions. The Fed, in coordination with other countries’ central banks engaged in similar efforts, laid out dates that it will conduct the auctions through the rest of this year.
But write-downs of bad debt at Bank of America are a reminder to investors that troubles within the financial sector remain, according to Kim Caughey, equity research analyst at Fort Pitt Capital Group.
“I think we have weeks of volatility ahead of us,” she said. “We’re not overly optimistic but we’re not indulging in doom and gloom either.”
She said the arrival of quarterly results from corporations has made investors even more jittery, with investors seeking any information about how companies are faring. She said some companies could go under because of the tough economic conditions but that the stronger players would survive.
“You’re going to get that Darwinian shakeout process. That’s going to happen from the mom and pops all the way up to the big boys,” she said.
Minutes from the Fed’s last meeting described a U.S. economy that was slowing considerably and credit markets that were deteriorating rapidly. The meeting was held Sept. 16, the day after the failure of Lehman Brothers. The central bank’s Open Market Committee found the risks from weaker growth and higher inflation were roughly equal; that was its rationale for leaving rates unchanged. Policymakers, who will meet again at the end of the month, left key interest rate unchanged at 2 percent.
About 2,800 stocks declined on the New York Stock Exchange, while fewer than 400 advanced. Volume came to 1.73 billion shares.
The Russell 2000 index of smaller companies fell 36.96, or 6.20 percent, to 558.95.
Overseas, Japan’s Nikkei stock average fell 3.03 percent. Britain’s FTSE 100 rose 0.35 percent, Germany’s DAX index fell 1.12 percent, and France’s CAC-40 rose 0.55 percent.