A disheartened Wall Street fell for the third straight session Wednesday as investors absorbed another series of dismal corporate reports and news that the government won't buy banks' soured mortgage assets after all. The Dow Jones industrials dropped more than 410 points, and all the major indexes lost more than 4 percent.
The stock market has lost about $1 trillion over the past three days, according to the Dow Jones Wilshire 5000 index, which reflects the value of nearly all U.S. stocks.
The market started the day falling on more signs that companies are being hurt by a severe pullback in consumer spending. Macy's Inc. said it lost $44 million in the third quarter as sales at the department store retailer fell more than 7 percent. And consumer electronics retailer Best Buy Co. slashed its fiscal 2009 guidance on fears that consumer spending will erode even further.
Meanwhile, Morgan Stanley, suffering from the ongoing losses on Wall Street, outlined plans to cut 10 percent of staff in its institutional securities group — its biggest business that covers everything from investment banking to stock trading.
The bleak reports, which followed disappointing news from coffee retailer Starbucks Corp. and homebuilder Toll Brothers Inc. earlier in the week, made it increasingly clear to investors that companies across the economy are suffering from the aftermath of the housing and credit crises.
"There just doesn't appear to be an end in sight to the bad news," said Anton Schutz, portfolio manager of the Burnham Financial Industries Fund and the Burnham Financial Services Fund. "The selling is relentless."
There was more pain at mid-morning, when Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson said the government's $700 billion financial rescue package won't purchase troubled assets from banks. He said that plan would have taken too much time, and that the Treasury instead will rely on buying stakes in banks and encouraging them to resume more normal lending.
He was noncommittal about direct support for the auto industry, saying it was a "critical industry" but that the bailout plan was not designed for them.
While the market had been pleased by the government's decision weeks ago to buy banks' stock, investors still hoped to see the financial industry relieved of the burden of the mortgage assets whose decline in value helped set off the nation's financial crisis. His comments, which underscored the anxiety that remains about the health of the financial system, sent stocks falling further.
Analysts believe the market is in the process of retesting the intraday low hit on Oct. 10, when the blue chips fell to 7,882.50.
"We're just going through the typical process of testing and retesting," said Matt King, chief investment officer of Bell Investment Advisors. "If we can continue to build higher and higher lows, that's definitely a positive. If the Dow can build a base above 8,100 and bounce off that, we see that as a definite technical positive."
The selling accelerated in the last hour of the day, as it has done in most sessions over the past two months.
"When there is a lot of volatility, especially on a big down day, people just decide they don't want to own stocks overnight," said Ryan Detrick, senior technical strategist at Schaeffer's Investment Research. "News doesn't drive this lower, fear does. Investors will back the next morning after they see where things settled."
Late-day volatility has also been fed by hedge and mutual funds selling as investors withdraw money from the market.
The Dow shed 411.30, or 4.73 percent, to 8,282.66. It was the lowest close for the Dow since its 5 1/2-year low of 8,175.77 reached on Oct. 27.
According to the Dow Jones Wilshire 5000 index, Wednesday's paper losses amounted to about $600 billion. By that measure, the stock market has shed $9.1 trillion since the index's Oct. 9, 2007, peak.
The broader Standard & Poor's 500 index dropped 46.65, or 5.19 percent, to 852.30, and the Nasdaq composite index stumbled 81.69, or 5.17 percent, to 1,499.21.
The Russell 2000 index of smaller companies fell 29.49, or 6.11 percent, to 452.80.
Declining issues overwhelmed advancers by more than 10 to 1 on the New York Stock Exchange, where volume came to 1.46 billion shares.
Though Paulson's announcement marks a major shift in the original bailout plan and rattled investors, Wall Street analysts generally believe the Treasury is now on the right path.
"That's really what they should have done originally," said King. "First and foremost, we have to make sure banks are going to survive and then we can worry about lending. This is the quickest and most efficient way to do that."
"Buying bad assets doesn't do that," he said.
However, there is some concern that the bailout funds are being depleted rather quickly, said Jason O'Donnell, senior research analyst at Boenning & Scattergood.
"Investors are generally in favor of the emphasis on the capital purchase provisions," O'Donnell said. But, "we're down quickly to a small portion of total funds remaining for other purposes."
Paulson also announced a new goal for the program to support financial markets that supply consumer credit in such areas as credit card debt, auto loans and student loans. He said, "with a stronger capital base, our banks will be more confident" to support economic activity.
Paulson said that non-financial firms as well as banks may need additional cash infusions but that he saw “implementation difficulties” aiding companies that were not federally regulated. He said 40 percent of U.S. consumer credit is provided through selling securities that are backed by pools of these loans.
“This market, which is vital for lending and growth, has for all practical purposes ground to a halt,” Paulson said.
Investors are worried that a severe pullback in consumer spending — which drives more than two-thirds of the U.S. economy — will prolong a global economic downturn.
Macy's shares fell $1.04, or 11 percent, to $8.37. Best Buy shares tumbled $1.91, or 8 percent, to $21.97.
The future of the country's top automakers remained a major concern on the Street as well, as investors waited to see whether the government would put together a bailout plan for General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler.
General Motors was the only gainer among the 30 Dow stocks Wednesday, rising 16 cents, or 5.5 percent, to $3.08. Ford gained 4 cents, or 2.2 percent, to $1.84.
Morgan Stanley, which converted into a bank holding company in September, said it plans to scale back its institutional securities business before the end of the year. The layoffs it plans are in addition to a 10 percent cut made earlier this year to the group.
Morgan Stanley also plans to restructure its money management business by cutting 9 percent of the group's work force. The securities firm employs about 44,000 people worldwide. Morgan Stanley shares fell $2.14, or 15.2 percent, to $11.94.
Meanwhile, American Express Co. is said to be seeking about $3.5 billion from the government to help boost its balance sheet, according to a report in The Wall Street Journal citing people familiar with the situation. AmEx, the No. 4 U.S. credit card issuer, won approval Monday from the Federal Reserve to become a bank holding company, which gives it the ability to grow a large deposit base and access financing from the Fed.
AmEx shares dropped $2.35, or 10.5 percent, to $20.05.
Government bond prices, which did not trade Tuesday because of Veterans Day, moved higher as investors looked for safer investments. The three-month Treasury bill's yield fell to 0.16 percent from 0.22 percent late Monday, and the yield on the benchmark 10-year Treasury note fell to 3.67 percent from 3.76 percent late Monday.
Lower yields indicate stronger demand.
Crude dropped below $57 a barrel Wednesday on the growing realization that global economic growth next year will slow more than originally feared, cutting demand for crude products such as gasoline. Light, sweet crude fell $3.50, or nearly 6 percent, to settle at $56.16 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange.
The dollar was mixed against other major currencies, while gold prices dipped.
Overseas, Japan's Nikkei closed down 1.29 percent and Hong Kong Hang Seng fell 0.73 percent. In Europe, London's FTSE 100 fell 1.52 percent, Germany's DAX fell 2.96 percent, and France's CAC-40 dropped 3.07 percent.