Despair over the economy has sent Wall Street plunging again today, with all the major indexes falling more than 7 percent.
NEW YORK — Despair over the economy has sent Wall Street plunging again today, propelling the Dow Jones industrials to their second-largest point loss ever. Stocks fell on a combination of disheartening economic data, including a big drop in retail sales and a Federal Reserve report that said tight credit conditions are hurting businesses across the country.
At the close, the Dow Jones industrials were down 733.08, or 7.9 percent, at 8,577.91. On Sept. 29, the Dow had its largest point drop of 777.68.
Microsoft, one of the 30 Dow stocks, fell $1.44, or 6 percent, to $22.66. Boeing, also a Dow stock, sank $2.74, or 6.1 percent, to $42.33.
Broader stock indicators also dove. The Standard & Poor’s 500 index fell 90.17, or 9 percent, to 907.84, and the Nasdaq composite index fell 150.68, or 8.5 percent, to 1,628.33.
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After a one-day break, the Dow resumed a string of triple-digit losses or gains. On Tuesday, after swinging erratically in a 700-point range during the session, the blue-chip index closed the day down a moderate 76 points.
The government’s report that retail sales plunged in September by 1.2 percent — almost double the 0.7 percent drop analysts expected — made it clear that consumers are reluctant to spend amid a shaky economy and a punishing stock market.
The Commerce Department report was sobering because consumer spending accounts for more than two-thirds of U.S. economic activity. The reading came as Wall Street was refocusing its attention on the faltering economy following stepped up government efforts to revive the stagnant credit markets.
The release of the Beige Book, the assessment of regional business conditions from the Federal Reserve, added to investors’ angst. The report found that the economy continued to slow in the early fall as financial and credit problems took a turn for the worse. The central bank’s report supported the market’s belief that difficulties in obtaining loans have choked growth in wide swaths of the economy.
“Even though the banking sector may be returning to normal, the economy still isn’t. The economy continues to face a host of other problems,” said Doug Roberts, chief investment strategist at ChannelCapitalResearch.com. “We’re in for a tough ride.”
Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke offered a similar opinion, warning in a speech today that patching up the credit markets won’t provide an instantaneous jolt to the economy.
“Stabilization of the financial markets is a critical first step, but even if they stabilize as we hope they will, broader economic recovery will not happen right away,” he told the Economic Club of New York.
Analysts have warned that the market will see continued volatility as it tries to recover from the devastating losses of the last month, including the nearly 2,400-point plunge in the Dow over eight sessions. Such turbulence is typical after a huge decline, but the market’s anxiety about the economy is also expected to cause gyrations in the weeks and months ahead.
Investors apparently have come to believe that Monday’s big rebound — with the Dow surging 936 points in response to the government’s plan to invest $250 billion in banks to get the lending business restarted — was overdone given the problems elsewhere in the economy.
“It really doesn’t come as a shock after Monday’s gains were I think a little bit excessive,” said Charles Norton, principal and portfolio manager at GNICapital, referring to the market’s pullback.
He contends that the government has taken so many steps that investors must now wait for some of the actions to help steady the economy.
“It seems like all the tools in the tool chest have mostly been used now and now it’s back to reality,” he said. “We’re still faced with the fact that the economy is slowing and earnings aren’t very good.”
Doubts about the economy were already surfacing in Tuesday’s session, when investors halted an early rally and began collecting profits from stocks’ big Monday advance. Today’s data confirmed the market’s fears that the economy is likely to remain weak for some time, and that corporate profits are likely to suffer.
Mark Coffelt, portfolio manager at Empiric Funds, said moves by European and U.S. government officials to begin investing directly in banks are easing worries about credit. But the steep pullback in stocks that began last month after the credit markets lurched to a near standstill has now created worries that consumers will spend less after seeing the value of their retirement accounts and other investments drop.
“Markets abhor uncertainty and so we got a lot of that resolved this weekend and we got the reward Monday but now people are saying ‘OK, now what is the economy going to do?’ “
“We’re definitely going to get a slowdown from the terror of going through that,” Coffelt said.
The stock market was trying to recover from last week’s terrible run, which erased about $2.4 trillion in shareholder wealth and brought the Dow to its lowest level since April 2003. The tumble occurred amid a seize-up in lending stemming from a lack of trust among institutions in response to the bankruptcy of investment bank Lehman Brothers Holdings and the failure of Seattle-based Washington Mutual, which had been the nation’s largest thrift.
The credit markets have been showing tentative signs of recovery, though they remain strained, and demand for safe assets remains high. The three-month Treasury bill on today was yielding 0.33 percent, up from 0.21 percent on Tuesday. Overall yields remain low, showing that demand is so high that investors are willing to earn meager returns as long as their principal is preserved.
Meanwhile, the Labor Department said the producer price index, which measures inflation pressures before they reach the consumer, fell 0.4 percent in September, driven by lower energy costs. That decline matched analysts’ expectations.
In Europe, Britain’s FTSE 100 fell 7.08 percent, Germany’s DAX index fell 6.49 percent, and France’s CAC-40 fell 6.82 percent.