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Wall Street plunges on weak economic data

Weak retail sales figures and a disappointing quarterly report from Citigroup Inc. sent Wall Street plunging Tuesday. The Dow Jones industrials fell nearly 280 points.
/ Source: The Associated Press

A growing conviction that the U.S. is headed toward recession sent Wall Street plunging Tuesday, with weak retail sales figures and disappointing results from Citigroup Inc. exacerbating investors’ pessimistic mood. The Dow Jones industrials tumbled nearly 280 points.

Investors backed away from stocks amid growing concerns that consumer spending will wane and contribute to an economic downturn. The latest evidence that consumers are retrenching came from the Commerce Department, which said retail sales fell in December while it also revised its November figures lower. Spending by consumers, which accounts for more than two-thirds of U.S. economic activity, has been key to staving off economic slowdowns in recent years.

There is also a growing fear that the Federal Reserve hasn’t done enough to keep the economy going — especially as investors continue to see the fallout from the summer’s subprime mortgage crisis. Citigroup, the nation’s biggest bank, announced on Tuesday a hefty $18.1 billion write-down for bad mortgage assets and slashed its dividend.

Fourth-quarter earnings reports aren’t helping matters. After the close of the market Tuesday, Intel Corp.,the world’s largest chip maker, posted results below projections; the company is seen as a leading indicator for the rest of the tech sector, and other companies as well.

Brian Gendreau, investment strategist for ING Investment Management, said the market is now seeing “a decisive shift” toward a recession.

“The sectors that are outperforming are defensive plays, like consumer staples,” he said. “People don’t buy them unless you’re worried about sustained weakness.”

Investors have sold stocks sharply lower so far this year on increasing worries about the economy. The Dow fell 277.04, or 2.17 percent, to 12,501.11, the latest in a string of triple-digit slides.

Broader stock indicators also lost ground. The Standard & Poor’s 500 index dropped 35.30, or 2.49 percent, to 1,380.95, and the Nasadaq composite index lost 60.71, or 2.45 percent, closing at 2,417.59.

Declining issues outnumbered advancers by about 3 to 1 on the New York Stock Exchange, where volume came to 1.53 billion shares, compared to 1.27 billion on Monday.

Bond prices rose as investors fled to the safety of government securities. The yield on the benchmark 10-year Treasury note — which moves opposite its price — fell to 3.68 percent, close to its lowest point since March 2004 and down from 3.77 percent late Monday. The dollar was mixed against other major currencies, while gold prices rose.

Light, sweet crude fell $2.30 to settle at $91.90 per barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange.

Tuesday’s trading more than wiped out Monday’s triple-digit gain in the Dow, and showed the depths of the market’s pessimism. Both the Dow and S&P 500 are almost 12 percent below their October highs, while the S&P 500 is off nearly 15 percent from its high in November.

A 10 percent drop from a market high is considered a correction.

Just 10 trading days into 2008, the Dow has fallen 5.76 percent, while the S&P 500 is down 5.95 percent and the Nasdaq has lost 8.85 percent.

“When consumers are beaten over the head about how bad things are, pretty soon they believe it and that affects their spending habits,” said Scott Wren, equity strategist for A.G. Edwards & Sons. “And when there’s a lot of uncertainty out there, the Fed needs to be a little more aggressive — I think they need to cut more than just at this next meeting.”

Still, hopes for a rate cut weren’t enough to calm Wall Street.

He said the worrisome fall in retail sales, which also pressures the dollar, builds a case that the cut will be at least 0.50 percentage point. It also increases the likelihood of further cuts after the central bank’s Jan. 29-30 meeting.

Adding to investors’ concerns, the New York Federal Reserve’s Empire State survey of regional manufacturing showed a drop to 9.03 this month from 9.80 in December.

But there was some relief about inflation. Producer prices fell 0.1 percent, according to the Labor Department. The result was smaller than the 0.2 percent drop expected by economists, but all declines in price pressure are generally good news. Excluding food and energy, producer prices gained 0.2 percent, matching expectations.

Financial services stocks were among the biggest influences on investors during Tuesday’s session. Citigroup’s drastic efforts to shore up its balance sheet had been widely expected, but it still was a forceful reminder of the serious problems that bad lending practices have created for financial services firms.

Citigroup, which lost $9.83 billion in the fourth quarter, also announced a massive $12.5 billion capital injection. Hope that struggling banks will bolster their finances was also stirred after Merrill Lynch & Co. Inc. said three foreign investment funds agreed to invest $6.6 billion.

Citi fell $2.21, or 7.6 percent, to $26.85. Merrill — which reports results on Thursday — fell $2.96, or 5.3 percent, to $53.01.

Intel plunged in after-hours trading after also saying sales in the current period would come in slight below expectations. The stock, which closed at $22.69, down 39 cents, in regular trading, skidded to $19.84 in later dealings.

The Russell 2000 index of smaller companies fell 15.05, or 2.11 percent, to 697.43.

Overseas, Japan’s Nikkei stock average fell 0.98 percent. Britain’s FTSE 100 closed down 3.06 percent, Germany’s DAX index fell 2.14 percent, and France’s CAC-40 lost 2.83 percent.