NEW YORK – Wall Street joined world stock markets in a selloff Friday, with the Dow Jones industrials dropping about 330 points and all the major indexes falling more than 3 percent. The growing belief that the world will suffer a punishing economic recession has investors dumping stocks.
The pullback in the U.S. wasn't as steep as some on Wall Street had feared given the massive declines seen overseas amid grim corporate news. Earlier, a decline in index futures before the market opened was so steep that selling halts were imposed.
But the anxiety preceding the open — demonstrated by the limits on futures and gyrations in everything from gold to the dollar — underscored the fear and uncertainty that has gripped markets since the mid-September bankruptcy of investment bank Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. and the subsequent lockup in the world's credit markets.
The past month's urgency to resuscitate lending was aimed at avoiding some of the problems that have nonetheless spread around the world. The latest reasons to worry about the economy came Friday — a profit warning from electronics maker Sony sent its shares sharply lower in Japan overnight and was only the latest example that companies are girding for a slowing economy and a pullback among consumers worried about falling housing values and losses in their investments.
And in Germany, Daimler's stock fell sharply after the automaker reported lower third-quarter earnings and abandoned its 2008 profit and revenue forecast. That followed news in the U.S. late Thursday from Microsoft Corp., which issued a weaker-than-expected forecast for its fiscal second quarter, pointing to the economy.
It is clear that many investors are convinced the world economy is headed for a severe downturn despite the government rescue efforts aimed at pulling the financial system from the brink. It also indicated that the tremors caused by the global credit crisis may have only begun to be felt in their true scope and magnitude.
"People have been saying that we're in a recession. This is the realization," said Scott Fullman, director of derivatives investment strategy for WJB Capital Group in New York.
But some say the recent pullbacks have been set off by forced selling, keeping some bargain-seeking traders from entering the market.
"There's nothing new going on," said Scott Bleier, president of market advisory service CreateCapital.com. "This is all about the unwinding of massive leverage."
In early afternoon trading, the Dow fell 329.98, or 3.80 percent, to 8,361.27 after falling 500 soon after the opening bell. Still, the blue chips remained above the 8,000 level; at its recent low of Oct. 10, the Dow traded as low as 7,882.51. The Dow hasn't closed below that level since March 31, 2003, when it ended at 7,992.13.
Broader stock indicators also tumbled. The S&P 500 index fell 35.04, or 3.86 percent, to 873.07, and the Nasdaq composite index fell 47.07, or 2.93 percent, to 1,556.84.
The Russell 2000 index of smaller companies fell 15.71, or 3.21 percent, to 474.21.
On the New York Stock Exchange, declining issues outpaced advancers by about 6 to 1, while volume came to 734.9 million shares.
While the market came off its worst lows of the day, the final hour of trading remains a crucial period, with many inventors trying to square away their positions at the last minute. In the past few weeks, some of the market's worst volatility has come in the last 30 minutes of the session.
Friday was the 79th anniversary of the day that, according to many market historians, the October 1929 stock market crash began. Selling began on Thursday, Oct. 24, and accelerated the following week on the days that have since become known as Black Monday and Black Tuesday, Oct 28 and 29.
At its lows Friday, the Dow was down 42 percent from its Oct. 9, 2007, record close of 14,164.53, while the S&P 500 was off 46 percent from its peak of a year ago. The Nasdaq was down 48 percent.
Demand for U.S. Treasurys remained high as investors sought safe places to put their money. The three-month bill, regarded as the safest asset around, rose to 0.95 percent from 0.94 percent late Thursday.
There were signs that credit markets continue to thaw but are doing so more slowly amid growing economic fears. The rate on three-month loans in dollars — known as the London Interbank Offered Rate, or Libor — fell to 3.52 percent from 3.54 percent on Thursday.
The rates have fallen steadily for 10 days as confidence in the banking industry has been helped somewhat by government rescue measures. However, the improvements were smaller Friday on widening concerns about the health of the global economy.
The yield on the benchmark 10-year Treasury note, which moves opposite its price, fell to 3.64 from 3.66 percent late Thursday.
Gold futures briefly fell to their lowest level in 21 months Friday as the dollar strengthened and the drop in the world's stock markets led investors to sell commodities to offset massive losses in equities. Gold regained much of what it lost later in the day though prices remain down by about 20 percent since the start of the month.
The pullback in global markets comes ahead of a planned meeting next week of the Federal Reserve's interest rate committee. Policymakers are scheduled to announced a decision on interest rates on Wednesday.
Investors had been bracing for a rocky start on Wall Street after futures contracts for the Dow and the S&P 500 fell so low they triggered "circuit breakers," which froze selling until the market's 9:30 a.m. EDT open. That slide raised the possibility that circuit breakers intended to prevent panic selling could be triggered during the regular session — something that hasn't happened since 1997.
The thresholds that would trigger a halt in trading are set at a decline of 10 percent, 20 percent and 30 percent in the Dow, based on where that index was at the beginning of the current quarter; that would mean declines of 1,100 points, 2,200 points and 3,300 points, respectively.