A disheartened Wall Street fell for the third straight session Wednesday as investors absorbed another series of dismal corporate reports and news that the US government won't buy banks' soured mortgage assets after all. The Dow Jones industrials skidded more than 410 points, and all the major indexes dropped more than 4 percent.
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 country's 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 US 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.
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.
According to preliminary calculations, 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.
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 US 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.