NEW YORK – A period of relative calm on Wall Street ended Thursday as stocks tumbled in the final hour of trading on growing investor anxiety ahead of the government’s November employment report.
The major indexes each slid more than 2.5 percent, including the Dow Jones industrial average, which dropped 216 points after rising in seven of the last eight sessions.
Investors are worried that Friday’s employment report would show a further deterioration in the job market; employers cut 1.2 million jobs in the first 10 months of the year, leaving the unemployment rate at a 14-year high of 6.5 percent. Economists expect the Labor Department will report that the jobless rate rose to 6.8 percent in November and that companies cut another 320,000 jobs.
“It’s all about jobs and right now the outlook is pretty downbeat,” said Alan Skrainka, chief market strategist with Edward Jones in St. Louis.
Jeff Kleintop, chief market strategist at LPL Financial Services, said many institutional investors are bracing for the report to show the economy shed 400,000 jobs last month. He said a reading below that number could prompt relieved investors to snap up stocks but that anything worse could touch off further selling.
“The market has been very reactionary to the data points, particularly key economic indicators like the employment report,” he said.
Thursday’s decline came as the heads of the Detroit automakers appeared before Congress with hopes of persuading skeptical lawmakers to provide $34 billion in emergency funds. While the market expects General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler LLC will be able to win aid, a deal isn’t assured.
The pullback followed a decent run on Wall Street. Broad indexes including the Standard & Poor’s 500 index have finished with gains in seven of the last nine sessions. Monday was the biggest exception, when the major indexes plunged more than 7 percent at the prospects of a punishing recession.
Thursday’s selling, especially the final hour slide, fits in with the pattern of volatility that analysts have warned investors to expect as the market tries to recover from the devastating losses of the past few months. Still, it was encouraging that stocks ended off their lows of the session. The Dow had been down as much as 332 points.
Anthony Conroy, managing director and head trader for BNY ConvergEx Group, said the pullback came as investors grew nervous about the coming employment report and disappointment that the second appearance of the Big Three automakers in as many weeks on Capitol Hill hadn’t gone as smoothly as some investors had hoped. Contrite auto executives still met with resistance from lawmakers.
“People were expecting some clarity,” he said.
The Dow industrials ended down 215.45, or 2.51 percent, at 8,376.24.
Broader stock indicators also declined. The Standard & Poor’s 500 index fell 25.52, or 2.93 percent, to 845.22, and the Nasdaq composite index fell 46.82, or 3.14 percent, to 1,445.56.
The Russell 2000 index of smaller companies fell 14.23, or 3.14 percent, to 439.53.
The number of stocks that fell on the New York Stock Exchange outpaced those that rose by nearly 3 to 1. Consolidated volume came to 5.7 billion shares compared with 6.01 billion shares traded Wednesday.
Bond prices rose again, sending yields to record lows as investors again sought the safety of government debt – even if the returns are meager. The yield on the benchmark 10-year Treasury note, which moves opposite its price, fell to 2.56 from 2.67 percent late Wednesday.
The yield on the three-month T-bill, considered one of the safest investments, fell to below 0.01 percent from 0.02 percent late Wednesday.
The dollar was mixed against other major currencies, while gold prices fell.
Before nervousness gripped the market late in the day, investors seemed to shrug off a stream of poor economic data as they had on Wednesday when stocks rallied.
The Labor Department said new claims for jobless benefits fell unexpectedly last week but the number of people continuing to receive government aid reached a 26-year high. The Commerce Department reported that factory orders plunged by 5.1 percent in October. It was the steepest decline in eight years.
Retailers were the standouts of the session, though the market’s late decline pared their gains. The advances came, analysts said, amid relief that huge declines in November sales weren’t worse. The Goldman Sachs-International Council of Shopping Centers sales index fell 2.7 percent to its lowest reading since its inception in 1969.
Macy’s Inc. said its same-store sales, or sales at stores open at least a year, fell 13.3 percent. Same-store sales are a key measure of a retailer’s health. Macy’s advanced 44 cents, or 6 percent, to $7.83. Meanwhile, Target Corp. said its same-store sales for the month fell 10.4 percent. The company fell 44 cents, or 1.3 percent, to $34.04.
Many shoppers looking for discounts turned to Wal-Mart Stores Inc. The world’s largest retailer posted a 3.4 percent increase in sales. In the U.S., grocery sales helped results. Wal-Mart rose 73 cents to $55.11.
Among the automakers, GM fell 79 cents, or 16 percent, to $4.11, while Ford fell 19 cents, or 6.7 percent, to $2.66. Chrysler isn’t publicly traded.
AT&T Inc. fell 91 cents, or 3.1 percent, to $28.17 after reporting it is cutting 12,000 jobs, or about 4 percent of its work force.
Chemicals maker DuPont said it will cut 2,500 jobs, mostly serving the U.S. and European automotive and construction markets. DuPont rose 8 cents to $23.69.
Light, sweet crude fell $3.12 to settle at $43.67 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange. Crude, which soared to a record $147.27 in July, is now trading at its lowest levels in four years, having plunged in response to the weakening global economy. Meanwhile, the average price of a gallon of gas at the pump fell below $1.80, also a four-year low.
Overseas, Japan’s Nikkei stock average fell 1.00 percent. Britain’s FTSE 100 fell 0.15 percent, Germany’s DAX index slipped 0.07 percent, and France’s CAC-40 fell 0.17 percent.