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Economic Fears Reignite Market Slump
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OCTOBER 16, 2008 Economic Fears Reignite Market Slump
Stocks Post Biggest Drop Since 1987 Crash as Retail Sales Fall, Commodities Sink and Investors Worry About Hedge Funds
By SUDEEP REDDY, JENNIFER SARANOW and ANN
Fears of a deep recession sparked the worst drop in the Dow Jones Industrial Average in 21 years, as retail sales tumbled, demand for commodities sank and bank earnings fell.
SOMBER OUTLOOK: As markets fell Wednesday, Fed chief Ben Bernanke said stabilizing financial markets won’t spur a broad economic recovery overnight.
The latest data suggest the U.S. economy is poised to fall into its deepest recession since the early 1980s. That news, coupled with renewed signs of trouble in the all-important markets for credit, reignited the sell-off in stock markets, all but wiping out the huge gains that shares had made in Monday’s rally.
The Dow dropped 733.08 points, or 7.9%, to 8577.91 as recession fears and continuing doubts about the world financial system’s prospects shook investors. Wednesday’s decline marked the Dow’s largest percentage drop since October 1987 and the second-biggest point drop ever. The index is down 21% this month and almost 40% from its record close a year ago.
Other indexes plunged, too, including the Standard & Poor’s 500 stock index, which fell 9.03%. Overall, investors lost about .1 trillion in U.S. stock-market value on Wednesday, the second day in history that they have lost more than trillion in one day.
In another sign of economic weakness, demand for the most important raw materials continued to slide, with oil and copper prices falling sharply.
With the big drop in stocks, many investors fled into safe-haven instruments like the two-year Treasury bond, which rose in price, sending its yield down to 1.6%, while the 10-year bond price rose slightly to yield 4%.
The stock market was unnerved late in the day by new fears of instability in the financial system, this time in the hedge-fund industry. Traders heard talk that hedge fund Citadel Investment Group, whose funds are down between 26% and 30% for the year, was facing margin calls. The rumors fed an already anxious market, where investors have grown worried that some big, highly debt-dependent hedge funds could fail, causing more market declines. Citadel said its financial situation remained strong.
Adding to the somber mood, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke in a speech at the Economic Club of New York warned the economy faced tough prospects despite the government’s 0 billion rescue plan aimed at bolstering the U.S. financial system.
"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," Mr. Bernanke said. "Ultimately, the trajectory of economic activity beyond the next few quarters will depend greatly on the extent to which financial and credit markets return to more normal functioning."
Mr. Bernanke noted that the economy had been decelerating even before the September shock to financial markets. He ticked off a broadening list of troubles that now weigh on it: slower exports from a global slowdown, nagging declines in home prices, slower consumer spending and business investment, and the time that it will take for credit markets to unfreeze after the government’s dramatic steps this week.
Mr. Bernanke subtly left open the possibility of interest-rate cuts in the weeks or months ahead, noting inflation pressures have receded as a result of falling commodities prices.
But it’s far from clear how much effect further rate cuts would have. Investors have been demanding huge premiums — known on Wall Street as spreads — over benchmark interest rates to make loans to businesses and households. As long as these spreads remain large, the benefits of rate cuts are diminished. A big priority for now remains calming the fear that has swept through financial markets. That would make financial institutions more willing to lend at narrowed spreads.
Evidence is mounting that the U.S. is likely to experience a far worse downturn than the 2001 or 1990-91 recessions. Job losses started at the beginning of this year but started deepening last month, even before the worst of the credit crisis struck. The degree of the declines is sapping consumer incomes after a decade showing few earnings gains for most Americans.
In Seattle, 25-year-old Web developer Scott Krager is curtailing his spending — especially on eating out — and now rarely pays full price for anything. Recently, when he needed to purchase new khaki pants after his older ones were ruined in the dryer, Mr. Krager visited a Kohl’s department store for the first time and bought two pairs using a -off coupon.
"Overall, you can tell that it’s not 2003 or 2004 anymore," said Mr. Krager. "It’s the first time my generation has really felt the effect of any kind of pull back."
The Commerce Department said its broad gauge of retail sales dropped 1.2% last month, a much sharper decline than in July and August. The figures followed last week’s weak September sales reports by major retailers, and they confirmed that the economy was weakening before this month’s market turmoil, suggesting deeper declines in the coming months. Consumer spending, which accounts for more than 70% of the U.S. economy, is likely to record declines in the third and fourth quarters of this year.
Retail sales slipped in almost every sector. Auto sales fell 3.8%, while furniture, electronics, clothing and food stores also declined.
The troubles are weighing heavily on the global economy. Weak prospects around the world are pushing commodity prices sharply lower, a sign that strong demand — which led to huge price surges earlier this year — has abated with the economic turmoil. Crude-oil prices tumbled .09, or 5.2%, to .54 a barrel, its lowest settlement price this year.
Meanwhile, the continuing turmoil in credit markets is likely to hit the banking sector hard in the coming months. J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. and Wells Fargo & Co., two of the nation’s strongest banks, on Wednesday said their consumer operations are likely to worsen for months amid weaker performance of mortgages, credit cards and auto loans. J.P. Morgan, which is one of the nation’s largest credit-card issuers, said charge-offs — reflecting loans considered to be uncollectible — represented 5% of its card portfolio compared with 3.64% in the third quarter of 2007. That’s expected to grow to 6% in the beginning of next year and 7% by the end of 2009, the bank said.
The Federal Reserve’s latest "beige book” report, a summary of regional economic conditions, showed weakness across the nation into early October. Consumer spending declined, manufacturing activity dropped and several regions reported lower capital spending or reductions in capital spending plans "due to the high level of uncertainty about the economic outlook or concerns over the availability of credit." Among the few bright spots were agriculture and other natural resources, though drops in commodity prices since the reports were compiled could hurt those sectors.
Job losses, which started at the beginning of this year, are expected to worsen as businesses feel the credit pinch. The effects of the worsening economy were on display at retail outlets around the country.
After years of conspicuous consumption, many middle- and upper-income Americans are morphing into cautious shoppers. The change in mood could have a dramatic effect on consumer spending on everything from cars and travel to electronics, fashion and jewelry, especially heading toward the holiday season. That’s a radical change from the 2001 economic slowdown when many people shopped to feel better.
In Chicago, Fanchon Simons, an avid 60-year-old shopper, says she couldn’t bring herself to buy a 0 blouse that she tried on at a designer-clothing boutique last week. Ms. Simons says she hasn’t bought much for herself in the past couple weeks — and not because she can’t afford it. Buying "is not that important to me right now because of the climate," she says. "Maybe it’s a way to be in sympathy with the rest of the people…or maybe it’s that I don’t really need anything."
High-end consumers aren’t the only ones pinching pennies or turning to window-shopping. Synetha Chambers, a 31-year-old single parent from Cedar Hill, Texas, who makes an hour as a service representative for AT&T, says she has pared her grocery list to the necessities — milk is a must, but she no longer buys soda and chips. "And I will be honest with you, Christmas is no longer a necessity in my household," Ms. Chambers says.
Besides worrying about the economy, stock-market investors have two other immediate concerns. One is that credit markets may remain dysfunctional for weeks or even months, which would make the recession worse. The struggling credit market in particular is making it more difficult for many companies to raise the cash they need to run their operations.
In addition, investors are watching the earnings season, in particular what companies are saying about their outlook for the rest of the year. One test comes Thursday: Citigroup Inc. is reporting its latest quarterly results, and investors will be closely monitoring the health of its huge portfolios of consumer loans.
—Jon Hilsenrath, Miguel Bustillo and Robin Sidel contributed to this article.Write to Sudeep Reddy at firstname.lastname@example.org, Jennifer Saranow at email@example.com and Ann Zimmerman at firstname.lastname@example.org