Stocks are starting to get a major case of vertigo as investors stare down the fast-approaching fiscal cliff.
The Dow Jones industrial average and Standard & Poor's 500 index fell to their lowest levels since June and July, respectively, on Wednesday. In the Dow's case, it fell 185 points to 12,571 for the third triple-digit loss in little more than a week.
Investors see the risk lawmakers won't avert the fiscal cliff, which would result in more than $600 billion in automatic tax hikes and spending cuts, as an increasing likelihood.
The Nasdaq composite fell 10.6% from its recent high, making it the first major index to fall into the unofficial definition of a correction.
Investors are taking down the prices of stocks as they hedge their bets that if leaders in Washington can't avert the fiscal cliff, a serious downturn in the economy is more likely, says Hugh Johnson of Hugh Johnson Advisors. "It's not hard to make the case we may be headed to a recession," he says.
The market's ongoing woes are especially troublesome because of the:
• Severity of the declines. Not only are stocks sinking to lows not seen in months, they're on an ugly path. Stocks have been skidding since the election as investors braced for the victory of President Obama to maintain political gridlock. The Dow has shed 675 points since Nov. 6, notching a 5.1% decline from Election Day. The Dow and the S&P 500 are down 7.6% and 7.5% from their 52-week highs.
• A major index in correction territory. Tech stocks are really taking a beating. The Nasdaq composite index is down 10.6% from its 52-week high on Sept. 14, in large part to a sell-off in technology stocks. Led by a 24% decline of Apple from its 52-week high price, the technology sector is down 12.5% from its 52-week high.
• Lack of a profit renaissance to boost results. Investors aren't getting any encouragement from corporate earnings, as the third-quarter earnings season winds down. Of the 75 companies in the S&P 500 companies to issue guidance about the current quarter, 51 are negative, says S&P Capital IQ. The ratio of negative forecasts to positive is about twice the average over the past 10 years.
Investors shouldn't assume that the current decline is the start of something worse, says Justin Walters of Bespoke Investment Group. Stocks had fallen nearly 10% between early April and early June, but found their footing and headed higher, he says.
Meanwhile, some stocks are getting reasonably priced, says Karl Mills of Jurika, Mills and Keifer. "Some really good companies are getting cheap," he says.
Matt Krantz, USA TODAY