NEW YORK — Wall Street ended a turbulent week with another astonishing show of volatility Friday, with stocks plunging, recovering and then plunging again as investors absorbed another wave of downbeat economic news. The Dow Jones industrials fell almost 340 points and the major indexes all fell sharply for the second straight week.
Hedge fund selling in advance of a Saturday deadline contributed to the market's gyrations, and some retrenchment was to be expected following a big rally Thursday, when the Dow rallied more than 550 points after falling near its lows for the year. But there was plenty of discouraging news for investors to focus on, including comments from Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke that the markets remain under "severe strain" and a sobering report on October retail sales.
Analysts believe the market is still searching for a bottom after last month's huge losses, and that the pattern of volatility will continue for some time _ selling, even on technical reasons like looming deadlines for cashing out hedge fund holdings, is still coming against a backdrop of an extremely weak economy.
"Clearly, the trading crowd like hedge funds can take this market in any direction they want to. Anybody looking to build a position is just not confident," said Joseph V. Battipaglia, chief investment officer at Ryan Beck & Co.
The session saw another stream of bad news. Bernanke said during a speech in Frankfurt, Germany, that he would work closely with other central banks to try to alleviate the global financial crisis and left open the door to a fresh interest rate cut. The Fed is scheduled to meet Dec. 16 at its last regularly scheduled meeting this year.
While Wall Street would like to see another rate cut, many investors aren't sure, given the litany of bad economic and corporate news, of how effective a rate reduction would be in the near term. Many investors are still trying to assimilate the idea that the economy's downturn will be protracted, lasting well into next year and perhaps longer.
"The economic news continues to be very negative," said Ben Halliburton, chief investment officer of Tradition Capital Management. "The realization that '09 is going to be a very bad year for economic activity is starting to dawn on people and they are starting to digest how bad it's going to be."
The Commerce Department reported that retail sales plunged by the largest amount on record in October as consumers cut back on spending in the wake of the financial crisis. Retail sales fell by 2.8 percent last month, surpassing the old mark of a 2.65 percent drop in November 2001 in the wake of the terrorist attacks that year.
The market got more disappointing consumer news from retailers Abercrombie & Fitch Co. and JCPenney Co. Both warned that profits will come in below Wall Street's already lowered projections as retailers head into a holiday shopping season that could be among the slowest on record.
The great fear on the Street is that Americans' reluctance to spend will extend what is already a serious economic downturn. A barrage of negative consumer news sent stocks tumbling earlier in the week.
The market drew some brief comfort in the afternoon from comments from Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, who told CNBC that capital injections in the banking sector will help stimulate lending. He also defended the decision to not buy toxic assets from banks, saying that it would not work as quickly; the move helped send stocks falling earlier this week.
There was disquieting news from the tech sector that weighed on the Nasdaq composite index. Sun Microsystems Inc. said it will cut up to 6,000 workers, or about 18 percent of global staff, as part of a massive restructuring plan. And handset maker Nokia Corp. warned the global economic slowdown will weigh on sales next year.
The Dow fell 337.93, or 3.82 percent, to 8,497.31, at its lows of the day. The Dow fell more than 300 in early trading, recovered to a slim advance and then turned sharply lower at the end of the day as hedge funds cashed out. Fund investors had a Nov. 15 deadline for withdrawing their money, which forced the funds in turn to sell stocks.
The Standard & Poor's 500 index fell 38.00, or 4.17 percent, to 873.29, and the Nasdaq stumbled 79.85, or 5.00 percent, to 1,516.85.
The Russell 2000 index of smaller companies fell 34.71, or 7.07 percent, to 456.52.
Declining issues outpaced advancers by about 4 to 1 on the New York Stock Exchange, where consolidated volume came to 5.73 billion shares, compared with 7.67 billion on Thursday.
For the week, the Dow lost 4.99 percent, the S&P fell 6.20 percent and the Nasdaq tumbled 7.92 percent.
The major indexes have fallen dramatically since their highs of October 2007 as the housing and credit crises have taken their toll on the economy. The Dow is down 40 percent from its closing record of 14,164.53, while the S&P 500 is off 44.2 percent from its record close of 1,565.15. The Nasdaq is off 46.9 percent from its then 7 1/12-year high of 2,859.12.
The Dow's surge Thursday was the third-largest single-session point gain on record, following the 889-point rise on Oct. 28 and the 936-point surge on Oct. 13. The rally came after three days of selling that wiped out about $1 trillion in shareholder value.
Wall Street's violent swings in recent weeks are part of the market's ongoing "bottoming" process, analysts say, in which the market retests the lows hit last month. The market is expected to remain volatile, as evidenced by past recoveries from a bear market.
Randy Frederick, director of trading and derivatives at Charles Schwab & Co., said the sell-off could be attributed in part to investors not wanting to hold on to stocks going in to the weekend, particularly ahead of a meeting of Group of 20 international leaders in Washington. The meeting could bring decisions on how to help the troubled global financial system.
"Certainly in this market we've had a lot of late Friday sell-offs," he said. "The government has been very insistent on making major announcements on Sunday nights."
Bernie McGinn, chief executive of McGinn Investment Management, said the market needs to have a sustained rally for a couple of days to lure buyers back into the market. For the moment, he believes the market will continue to fluctuate based on events like earnings or government reports.
"We're in the middle of chaos," he said. "That's what it is, pure and simple."
The volatility helped send government bond prices higher as investors looked for safety. The three-month Treasury bill's yield fell to 0.14 percent from 0.20 percent late Thursday, and the yield on the benchmark 10-year Treasury note fell to 3.72 percent from 3.85 percent late Thursday. Lower yields indicate higher demand.
Meanwhile, the price of a barrel of light, sweet crude fell $1.20 to settle at $57.04 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange. Oil has been falling for the same reason as stocks _ the fear of a deep global recession.
Shares of major retailers fell as the string of disappointing earnings and outlooks continued. JCPenney lost $2.01, or 10.4 percent, to $17.27. Abercrombie & Fitch tumbled $4.65, or 20.7 percent, to a 52-week low of $17.79.
The dollar rose against other major currencies. Gold prices also rose.
Overseas, Japan's Nikkei closed up 2.72 percent and Hong Kong Hang Seng rose 2.43 percent. In European trading, London's FTSE 100 was up 1.53 percent, Germany's DAX rose 1.31 percent, and France's CAC-40 added 0.98 percent.
The Dow Jones industrial average ended the week down down 446.50, or 4.99 percent, at 8,497.31. The Standard & Poor's 500 index finished down 57.70, or 6.20 percent, at 873.29. The Nasdaq composite index ended the week down 130.55, or 7.92 percent, at 1,516.85.
The Russell 2000 index finished the week down 31.73, or 5.90 percent, at 505.79.
The Dow Jones Wilshire 5000 Composite Index _ a free-float weighted index that measures 5,000 U.S. based companies _ ended at 8,721.88, down 636.42 points, or 6.80 percent, for the week. A year ago, the index was at 14,727.28.
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