NEW YORK – Not since the financial crisis in 2008 has the Dow Jones industrial average fallen so far, so quickly. Yet for professional investors on Wall Street, the fears that have buckled financial markets over the last week are creating opportunities.
Some are buying U.S. stocks at levels they consider a steal. Some are looking at municipal bonds that can weather the current turmoil and will likely pay handsome yields.
Others are bolstering their portfolios with relatively safe, dividend-paying blue chips, bracing for a potential bear market.
And some are stockpiling cash, expecting things to get even cheaper.
Nearly all agree that what's behind the now seemingly daily 400 point-drops in the Dow is growing concern that the global economy will not get better any time soon.
Many may have expected ratings agency Standard and Poor's decision late Friday to downgrade U.S. debt down one notch from top rating AAA for the first time in history. The move nonetheless compounded the market's anxiety.
On Monday, the Dow the shed 634.76 points, or 5.6 percent, its sixth-largest point loss on record.
Bill Miller, a legendary investor at Legg Mason Capital Management, called S&P's downgrade "wrong and dangerous" in a note to clients. He said it appeared that S&P demonstrated a "stunning ignorance and complete disregard for the potential consequences of its actions on a fragile global financial system."
Panic is in the air again on Wall Street. That has some thinking of what to buy next, and when.
"'What's rocking the market is a growth scare," said Kathleen Gaffney, co-manager of $20 billion Loomis Sayles Bond Fund. She said that investors are afraid that the economies of Europe and the United States won't grow quickly enough to work their way out from under high debt burdens. A faster growing economy would lead to higher overall tax revenues for governments and go a long way to solving the financial market's problems.
Gaffney's fund doesn't hold any Treasurys. Along with holdings in Mexican and Brazilian bonds, about 10 percent of the fund's assets are in cash and short-term Canadian debt. She said she thinks that the market will continue to fall until assets become extremely cheap.
"We're waiting for a better buying opportunity," she said.
Kathy Jones, who heads fixed-income strategy at broker Charles Schwab, said she thinks that the S&P downgrade will lead to opportunities in the municipal bond market. Many of these triple-A rated bonds, which are the debt that states and cities take out to do things like improve local schools or build new highways, are expected to be downgraded shortly because they have long thought to be more risky than the federal government.
"The cascade effect" of downgrades will likely mean that some safe municipal bonds pay an abnormally high yield, she said.
It's clear that Wall Street thinks that the not-so-long-ago calm days of the market are over. As recently as July 21, the Dow was up to 12,571. That capped a nearly one-year period in which the benchmark Standard and Poor's 500 index rose 23 percent, boosted by rising corporate earnings and a bond-buying stimulus program by the Federal Reserve that lifted the prices of commodities and riskier stocks. The Dow closed Monday at 10,809.85.
Some investors are already taking their chance to buy at prices that look cheap. Keith Goddard, who manages $1 billion for Dallas-based Capital Advisors, spent the weekend lining up a list of possible purchases. Goddard thinks that the stock of blue-chip, dividend-paying stocks will outperform the rest of the market over the next five years because the stock market's price to earnings ratio will stay below 13. That's a measure of how much investors are willing to pay for a dollar in a company's earnings.
"We are buying into weakness," he said.
Goddard bought stock in Ford Motor Co. and asset manager BlackRock Inc. Monday. He bought Ford when it traded at a price to earnings ratio of 6 and said he thinks the automaker will beginning paying a dividend next year. He's holding on for the next two years at least, when he thinks that its price will double to $20 a share. He bought BlackRock Inc when it traded at a price to earnings ratio of 12. It pays a dividend of 2.2 percent.
Dimitre Genov, a senior portfolio manager with Artio Global Investors, a firm with $47 billion in assets under management, has been buying so-called defensive stocks. These companies tend to pay high dividends and sell everyday items like toothpaste or electricity that lead to stable earnings, no matter what happens in the broader economy.
Genov is picking up health care stocks, which have fallen 11 percent over the last week. He's attracted by dividends that are greater than the 2.34 percent an investor will receive from a 10-year Treasury note.
He thinks that a new bear market — a 20 percent drop from the stock market's previous high — is a real possibility.
"It's becoming a vicious cycle," he said. "We're not (in a bear market) yet but we're getting close."