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Stocks end up-and-down day lower again

Wall Street has ended still another highly volatile session with a big loss as the market’s stubborn worries about a protracted downturn in the economy and tight credit markets erased gains in the financial sector.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Wall Street has ended another highly volatile session with a big last-minute loss as the market’s stubborn worries about a protracted economic downturn and tight credit erased budding optimism about a housing sector recovery. The Dow Jones industrial average skidded 203 points to its lowest close in 5 1/2 years, with almost all the decline coming in the last 10 minutes of the session.

The Street’s back-and-forth moves were typical for a turbulent market that has seen many recent rallies evaporate — particularly as hedge and mutual funds sell off even strong assets so they can meet investors’ demands for their money back. These forced sell-offs tend to happen late in the day, when the funds figure out how much cash they’ll need to meet redemptions.

But the market’s anxiety also increases as the closing bell approaches, especially with growing concern about the spread of the financial crisis overseas. News from Asia and Europe tends to break overnight and before trading on Wall Street resumes in the morning.

“We were trading higher earlier on very light volume, but the buyers just couldn’t gather enough momentum to keep it going,” said Alfred E. Goldman, chief market strategist at Wachovia Securities. “When confidence is razor-thin, the nervous tension goes way up and bam — the sellers take over.”

“It’s just an overall malaise about how bad the economic slump is going to be globally,” he said.

That malaise grew particularly after credit ratings agency Moody’s Investors Service in the last half-hour of trading Monday downgraded General Motors Corp. further into “junk” status, pointing to the sharp contraction of the U.S. auto market. Shares of GM, one of the 30 Dow components, sank 50 cents, or 8.4 percent, to $5.45.

Earlier, banks got a boost after the Treasury said it signed agreements with nine financial institutions to buy stock in the companies this week. An upbeat home sales report also gave the market support until late afternoon.

The Dow fell 203.18, or 2.42 percent, to 8,175.77 after earlier rising by as many as 220 points. Even before the late-day selloff, it was an extremely volatile day for Wall Street — the Dow crossed between positive and negative territory 60 times during the session.

It’s been a devastating month for the stock market so far — if the Dow were to finish the month at Monday’s levels, it would be the worst month since September 1931. The blue-chip index is now 42.28 percent below its peak of 14,164.53, reached Oct. 9, 2007, and at its lowest closing level since April 1, 2003. On Monday, it did not plunge below its Oct. 10 trading low of 7,882.50.

Broader stock indicators showed more sizable losses. The Standard & Poor’s 500 index fell 27.85, or 3.18 percent, to 848.92, and the Nasdaq composite index fell 46.13, or 2.97 percent, to 1,505.90.

The Russell 2000 index of smaller companies fell 22.72, or 4.82 percent, to 448.40.

The waffling in the market came ahead of possible interest rate moves from central banks — including the Federal Reserve, which is set to begin a two-day meeting Tuesday. The Fed is expected to lower its fed funds rate by a half-point to 1 percent on Wednesday. Investors are also optimistic that the European Central Bank is moving toward its own cut after President Jean-Claude Trichet said Monday such a step was “a possibility.”

But while policymakers around the world have been trying to find a remedy for the fear of bad debt that has paralyzed parts of the credit markets in the past month, lending conditions have eased only slightly. Investors are worried that a drop-off in lending has damaged the economy.

The U.S. government is taking some of its first steps to steady the banking sector. The Treasury said it signed agreements with nine banks and will buy stock in the companies this week. The proceeds from the stock sales are intended to bolster the banks’ balance sheets so they will begin more normal lending.

“Clearly, what’s most important is that the funding crisis needs to be contained at this point,” said Chris Orndorff, director of equity strategy at Payden & Rygel in Los Angeles. “The banks need to start taking on some more risks,” he said. “I think it’s going to take months.”

Declining issues outnumbered advancers by about 4 to 1 on the New York Stock Exchange. Consolidated volume came to 5.48 billion shares, down from 6.45 billion Friday.

Light, sweet crude fell 93 cents to settle at $63.22 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange.

The gyrations in U.S. stocks have been sizable since the market’s peak a year ago, but particularly since last month’s bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. and the government rescue of insurer American International Group. With investors uncertain about the economy, the market appears to be bouncing along a rocky bottom after falling sharply earlier this month.

News that sales of new homes increased in September was a welcome surprise. While median home prices have dropped to the lowest level in four years, investors appeared pleased — at least initially — that the market was beginning to chip away at an inventory glut. The Commerce Department reported that sales of new single-family homes rose by 2.7 percent in September to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 464,000 homes. Economists had expected sales would drop from August.

But home prices — a big factor causing banks to tighten their lending standards — are still falling. The median price of a new home declined by 9.1 percent from a year ago to $218,400, its lowest level since September 2004.

Even with some welcome news, investors around the world remain worried about the prospects for economic expansion. A surge in the yen illustrated investors’ nervousness about how much economic activity could slow. The yen is seen as a safe haven holding for investors who contend the Japanese economy will fare better in a global recession.

Greg Church, chief investment officer of Church Capital Management in Yardley, Pa., contends the markets likely will remain volatile as hedge and mutual funds step into the market to sell. He also expects that some skittish investors will look to sell their positions as rallies emerge but that the severity of the market’s recent sell-off has left it overdue for a rally, even if it’s only temporary.

“We probably are due for some type of a bounce. Bear market rallies can be beautiful things. I think we could get one of those things sooner than later,” he said.

Investors uneasy about where the market is headed continued to propel demand for the safety of government debt. The yield on the benchmark 10-year Treasury note, which moves opposite its price, fell to 3.69 percent from 3.72 percent late Friday. The dollar was higher against most other major currencies, except the yen, while gold prices rose.

The yield on the three-month bill, regarded as the safest asset around, fell to 0.77 percent from 0.82 percent late Thursday.

A key bank-to-bank lending rate slipped Monday. The London Interbank Offered Rate, or Libor, on three-month loans in dollars dipped to 3.51 percent from 3.52 percent on Friday. While Libor has fallen steadily for over 10 days as confidence slowly returns to the banking system, investors remain skittish, particularly overseas.

The Nikkei fell 6.4 percent to its lowest level since October 1982, while Hong Kong’s Hang Seng Index tumbled 12.7 percent, its lowest finish in more than four years and its biggest single-session drop since 1991.

In Europe, Britain’s FTSE 100 fell 0.79 percent, Germany’s DAX index rose 0.91 percent, and France’s CAC-40 declined 3.96 percent. Stocks in Europe pulled well off their lows after Wall Street traded better than expected and Trichet raised the prospect of an interest rate cut.