Wall Street this morning: Stocks retreat despite emergency rate cut
October 8, 2008
NEW YORK ” Wall Street extended its huge decline Wednesday as an emergency interest rate cut failed to alleviate investors’ fears that the paralysis in the credit markets will set off a global recession.
The Dow Jones industrials, already down 875 points this week, fell another 200, and all the major indexes were down sharply.
The rate cut by the Federal Reserve and other leading central banks failed to convince investors that credit markets would soon relax and that banks would begin lending more freely to businesses and consumers. The Fed lowered rates by a half-point, saying in a statement that the turmoil in financial markets posed a further threat to an already shaky economy; it was joined in the rate cut by the European Central Bank, Bank of England, The Bank of Canada, the Swedish Riksbank and the Swiss National Bank.
But interest rate changes take months to work their way through the economy, and while investors clearly were happy with the central banks’ actions, they were also well aware that in the near term, banks remain reluctant to lend because of fears they won’t be paid back.
That fear, which increased after the failure of Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. in mid-September, has all but shut down the credit markets, making it increasingly hard for companies and individuals to borrow, and in turn, posing a further threat to the economy. Wall Street has plunged in response to scarcity of credit; stocks initially rose on the rate cut, but turned lower as the reality of the credit markets’ troubles set in again.
The fears on the Street have been exacerbated by the spread of the U.S. credit problems overseas. Several banks in Europe have had to be bailed out, and earlier this week, the governments of Germany, Ireland and Greece took steps to guarantee private bank deposits.
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Moreover, the markets are mindful of the fact that the government’s $700 billion financial rescue plan is in its early stages of implementation and will take some time to have an impact on banks’ balance sheets.
Stocks drew some early support from signs that the housing industry ” whose troubles set off the series of events leading to the current credit problems ” might be faring better than expected. The National Association of Realtors said pending home sales for August jumped unexpectedly, rather than falling 1.8 percent as had been predicted. Pending sales, which reflect signed contracts, rose 7.4 percent in August from an upwardly revised reading of 87 in July.
But investors who have been selling frantically because of the stymied credit markets, eventually discounted the home sales report and kept dumping stocks. In midday trading, the Dow fell 214.57, or 2.27 percent, to 9,232.54.
Broader indexes fell. The Standard & Poor’s 500 index fell 23.23, or 2.33 percent, to 973.00. The Nasdaq composite index fell 40.84, or 2.33 percent, to 1,714.04.
With its precipitous drop of the past few weeks, Wall Street is approaching the magnitude of the losses it suffered during the bear market in the early part of this decade. By the time the Dow reached its low of that market, 7,286.27 on Oct. 9, 2002, it had fallen 37.8 percent from its record high close of 11,722.98, set in January 2000.
The Dow has now fallen 33 percent from the closing high of 14,164.53, reached a year ago Thursday.
European indexes, which were down about 5 percent before the rate cut, pared only some of their losses. In Britain, the FTSE-100 fell 4.72 percent, Germany’s DAX dropped 5.88 percent, and France’s CAC-40 dropped 6.39 percent.
In Asia, Japan’s Nikkei 225 closed 9.38 percent lower and Hong Kong’s Hang Seng tumbled 8.17 percent hours before the rate cuts were announced; their declines showed the extent of the worldwide gloom.
Investors had been extremely anxious in recent days for a rate cut, and despite the Fed taking other steps this week to help the credit markets. Policymakers unveiled a plan to buy massive amounts of commercial paper, the short-term debt used by companies, in a bid to reanimate the credit markets.
“With all of this occurring as a coordinated effort it is showing that everybody out there is trying to fight this thing, and that should bring some confidence back to the market,” said Scott Fullman, director of derivatives investment strategy for WJB Capital Group. “But, the big question now is can the credit market open for business.”
It is likely that stocks won’t begin to recover for good until investors are certain the credit markets are functioning in a more normal fashion. There are also severe economic problems including heavy job losses and high unemployment that will also need to show improvement.
The uncertainty in the market has driven investors to buy up anything deemed safe, including gold and government debt. For instance, prices of gold shot up $31.20 to $913.20 ” though still off its record of $1,033.90 in March.
Demand for short-term Treasurys remained high because of their safety; investors are willing to take extremely low returns just to have their money in a secure place. The yield on the three-month Treasury bill, which moves opposite its price, dropped to 0.74 percent from 0.81 percent late Tuesday.
However, longer tem Treasury bonds fell because they are considered to be less attractive when the Fed cuts rates. The yield on the 10-year note rose to 3.68 percent from 3.51 percent late Tuesday.
The first third-quarter earnings reports are showing signs of strain on companies, and that is adding more uncertainty to the stock market. After the close Tuesday, Alcoa Inc. said it would conserve cash by suspending its stock buyback program and all non-critical capital projects. The aluminum company’s earnings fell 52 percent.
Shares of the company plunged $2.69, or 16 percent, to $14.02, by far the steepest decliner among the 30 that comprise the Dow industrials.
About 500 stocks advanced while 2,700 fell on the New York Stock Exchange, where volume came to 874.6 million shares.
The Russell 2000 index of smaller companies fell 13.91, or 2.49 percent, to 545.04.