Markets plummet; trade gap at 20-month high

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NEW YORK (AP) | Stocks and interest rates fell sharply Wednesday as more bad news chipped away at investors’ view of the economy.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 265 points, and all the major indexes fell more than 2 percent. The Dow has now fallen four days out of five, and it has lost almost 320 points in just the past two days. Meanwhile, the yield on the Treasury’s 10-year note fell to its lowest level since March 2009 as investors worried about the economy and avoiding stocks sought the safety of government securities.

Only 442 stocks rose on the New York Stock Exchange, while 2,627 fell, a sign that investors expect all businesses to suffer if the economy continues to weaken.

Investors’ gloom deepened a day after the Federal Reserve said it would begin buying government bonds as a way to stimulate the economy. News of slower industrial growth in China and a disappointing economic indicator in Japan helped send stocks plunging first in Asia, then in Europe.

The economic news in the U.S. was also troubling. The Commerce Department said the trade deficit widened in June to its highest level in 20 months as exports dipped. Falling exports mean U.S. manufacturing could be slowing down. And early this year, manufacturing showed the most consistent signs of recovery.

Also on Tuesday, an economic report showed that inventories held by wholesale businesses edged up only a slight 0.1 percent in June while sales fell 0.7 percent. It was the second consecutive drop in sales at the wholesale level and the biggest decline in 15 months.

Investors got more bad news after trading ended Wednesday. Cisco Systems Inc.’s revenue in the company’s latest quarter fell short of analysts’ expectations. Companies’ revenue shortfalls have sent stocks falling over the past month, and Cisco’s stock slid 8 percent in after-hours trading. Its report could touch off more selling on Thursday.

Stock traders tend to buy and sell based on their expectations for what business will be like in six to nine months. The problem is that economic data has been so muddled lately that investors have no sense of whether the recovery will hold. In its economic-assessment statement on Tuesday, the Fed was still talking about a recovery, although the central bank said it would more modest than forecast in June.

“Uncertainty, uncertainty, uncertainty,” was the way that Javier Perez-Santalla, managing director for futures and foreign exchange at the institutional brokerage firm Dinosaur Group, described the mood in the market.

“Everyone is scratching their heads, saying ‘which way?’ ” he said. “We’re kind of stuck in this no man’s land, where we’re damned if we do, damned if we don’t.”

The Fed said Tuesday it will start buying government bonds with money it gets from the maturing mortgage-backed bonds that it bought during the recession. The goal is to try to cut interest rates on mortgages and corporate loans and in turn increase lending and help the economy grow faster.

But the Fed’s moves were expected to be quite small in comparison to what the economy needs. And many investors were selling because the debt purchases would have only a limited impact on the economy.

The Dow dropped 265.42, or 2.5 percent, to 10,378.83, its largest slide since it fell 268.22 on June 29.

The Standard & Poor’s 500 index fell 31.59, or 2.8 percent, to 1,089.47. The S&P 500 slipped below 1,100, a key psychological level. Falling and holding below that level could lead to more selling as computer-driven trading sets in.

The Nasdaq Composite Index fell 68.54, or 3 percent, to 2,208.63. The Nasdaq tends to have the biggest losses when stocks are falling sharply because many of its component companies are smaller businesses that struggle the most in a weak economy.

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