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Wall Street worries: Dow plunges by 650 points

January 8, 2019

Wall Street’s stockings were stuffed with coal for Christmas after another sharp sell-off Monday combined with last week’s declines to wipe out much of 2018′s stock gains.

A roller-coaster short trading day in red territory ended with the Dow Jones Industrial Average down almost 3 percent, off more than 650 points to close at 21,792.20. Last week, the Dow lost almost 7 percent of its value, making it the worst week of trading since the October 2008 crash.

The continuing fall has analysts talking about a bear market, something that hasn’t prowled Manhattan’s downtown canyons for years. A bear market, generally defined as a drop of 20 percent or more, has already bit the Nasdaq boards, which have dropped 22 percent since record highs in August.

Both the Dow and the Standard Poor’s 500, another closely watched benchmark, are in red figures for 2018. On Monday, the SP 500 lost more than 2 percent and closed at 2,351.10

Some analysts remain optimistic that a sour December doesn’t signal a bleak 2019.

“This is nothing like 2008,” said Jurrien Timmer, director of global macroeconomics for Fidelity Investments.

While growth has slowed undeniably, particularly in overseas markets, it is different from stopping altogether, said Mr. Timmer, adding that many market fundamentals remain strong.

“I think what’s going on are shifting fundamentals from great to good, and investors have to absorb that,” he said. “But there’s very little, if any, evidence at all that says we’re heading into a recession. People are connecting a lot of dots that aren’t necessarily there, and the U.S. economy is doing just fine.”

Mr. Timmer acknowledged that prospects for earnings and gross domestic product next year are less rosy than 2018 figures, but he said that is to be expected given the furious increases over the past two years. The price-to-earnings ratio for the market remains solid at 13.6, Mr. Timmer said.

Although the past week is unlikely a harbinger of long-term problems in the markets, Sebastien Page, head of global multi-assets for T. Rowe Price, said the coming months could be chaotic.

“We don’t expect a recession, but we do see continued higher volatility,” Mr. Page said. “We’re coming off of peak earnings and highs for many companies, and it’s creating a sentiment-driven market.”

Mr. Page and Mr. Timmer said algorithm-driven trading has had a bigger impact on day-to-day volatility, although the exact size is hard to discern given that much of it comes from hedge funds and more boutique investment strategies.

“The fundamentals haven’t changed that much and, historically speaking, rates aren’t that high. We’re still in a stimulative environment, especially outside the U.S.,” Mr. Page said. “So we’ve never had a recession when real rates are this low, and the Fed can back off and indeed already has backed off some in terms of next year’s guidance.”

Still, President Trump has denounced the Federal Reserve’s activism in terms of raising rates this year, and administration officials scrambled to reassure investors in the usually sleepy pre-Christmas hours.

“The only problem our economy has is the Fed,” the president tweeted Monday. “They don’t have a feel for the Market, they don’t understand necessary Trade Wars or Strong Dollars or even Democrat Shutdowns over Borders. The Fed is like a powerful golfer who can’t score because he has no touch - he can’t putt!”

A day earlier, Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin made a round of calls to the heads of the nation’s six largest banks in an attempt to calm jitters, but the move only raised concerns about the economy.

On Wednesday, the Federal Reserve raised its benchmark interest rate to 2.5 percent, a move that Mr. Trump repeatedly admonished on Twitter in the days leading up to it.

Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell has often been in the president’s crosshairs, a tension that Mr. Trump’s new acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, described in an interview Sunday as “traditional.”

Mr. Trump even reportedly looked into the legality of firing Mr. Powell in the past few days, according to a Bloomberg report.

Mr. Mulvaney, speaking on ABC’s “This Week,” said the president now realizes he doesn’t have the legal authority to fire the independent Fed chair.

Most economists say economic barometers still look encouraging. The unemployment rate is at 3.7 percent, the lowest since 1969. Inflation is tame. Pay growth has picked up. Consumers boosted their spending this holiday season.

But the president’s anger over the Fed’s decision to raise its key short-term rate four times this year has created more uncertainty for already unnerved investors, whose stock market gains this year have evaporated.

Markets will reopen on Wednesday.

⦁ This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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