Stocks staged one of the most dramatic selloffs in market history Thursday as what may have been a trader error exacerbated losses in a market already jittery about the European debt crisis.
The Dow ended down 347.80, or 3.2 percent, at 10,520.32, after being down as much as 998.50 earlier, the Dow's biggest intraday drop on record. Treasurys surged.
Under current, New York Stock Exchange rules, if the market falls ten percent or more between 2:30 and 3:00 pm ET, trading is halted for 30 minutes. At its worst point, the Dow was down between 8 and 9 percent today.
The S&P 500 shed 3.2 percent, while the Nasdaqlost 3.4 percent. The CBOE volatility index, widely considered the best gauge of fear in the market, was around 34 at the closing bell, after being above 40 earlier. The VIX ended last week around 22.
At the height of the panic, one trader, on the condition of anonymity, said he heard fixed-income desks in Europe shut down early because there was no liquidity — basically European banks are halting lending right now.
"This is similar to what took place pre-Lehman Brothers," the trader said.
But in the final 15 minutes of trading it was revealed that a trader at a major firm may have mistyped a trade as billion— instead of million — which made what would've been a 300-point selloff more like a 900-point selloff.
The details were still being ironed out but sources suggested the firm in question was Citigroup and that the trade may have involved Procter & Gamble stock, which was down more than $22, or 35 percent at one point.
To watch a video of the market drama, click on the video at left.
But Citigroup said "At this point, we have no evidence that Citi was involved in any erroneous transaction" and the head of the NYSE said "I don't think you are looking for one bank that traded the wrong number of shares."
Other trading anomalies were also emerging: Accenture , a $40 stock, at one point dropped to one cent. ONE CENT. And 3M shares had a wild swing in afternoon trading, falling to around $68, before popping to $90 and finally settling at $84.24.
All this fogginess about botched trades came as the market was already on edge about Greece and the European debt crisis.
Just before the panic started, which was around 2:30pm ET, Mohamed El-Erian said on CNBC that the Greek crisis is about to spread.
"We've seen a crisis start in a country—Greece—become regional, impact the whole of the Euro zone and is on the verge of truly going global," said El-Erian, CEO of the world's biggest bond fund.
Rochdale analyst Dick Bove said the riots in Greece, which escalated after the Greek austerity bill was passed, are also a telling sign.
"There is simply a growing recognition that Greece has got to default, said Rochdale banking analyst Dick Bove. "The riots in the streets showed the decision to repay the debt was not going to be made by the people in Germany, France and Switzerland, it's going to be made by people in Greece and they're not going to repay it," he said. "Anyone seeing the riots is going to recognize that this government is going to be thrown out and anything replacing this government is going to be far more leftist leaning and they're going to repudiate."
Financials were pummeled, with Bank of America down more than 7 percent and JPMorgan off more than 4 percent. US-traded shares of Barclays were off 11 percent.
Financials had actually started the day under pressure after the U.S. Senate approved an amendment to the financial-reform bill that would end "too big to fail." The selling just accelerated as the riot news and European-lending rumors spread.
Earlier, the European Central Bank opted to keep interest rates unchanged, which came as a disappointment to the market as many had hoped that the central bank would take some action to stem the current crisis. The market also didn't like that ECB president Jean-Claude Trichet used the "u" word — uncertainty.
"We expect the euro-area economy to expand at a moderate pace in 2010, but growth patterns could be uneven in an environment of high uncertainty," Trichet said.
While debt worries spread to what seems like a new European country each day — Greece, Spain, Portugal — Standard & Poor's reiterated that their outlook for Italy is stable.
The dollar jumped to a 14-month high against the euro after the ECB failed to offer any additional measures to ease the Greek debt crisis. Oil fellto $77.11a barrel and gold soaredto $1,201 an ounce as investors piled into the metal as a safe haven from the market madness.
One trader noted that today just may be the day gold became a currency.
Elsewhere in the financial sector, Freddie Mac will ask for $10.6 billion more in federal aid after posting a nearly $8 billion loss in its latest quarter.
Among the handful of gainers in the market, Cigna shares gained about 3 percent after the health insurer posted a better-than-expected profit, helped by growth in its international segment and higher profit across its lines of business.
On the tech front, Symantec rose about 2 percent after the security software maker reported results that exceeded Street projections, led by strong sales of its antivirus software for consumers.
April sales reports from major retailers were mostly disappointing, including reports from Costco and Gap.
Teen chains reported sales declines that were worst than expected, while upscale department store Nordstrom reported a sales gain that topped expectations.
"The low interest-rate environment in the United States is pushing up the U.S. stock market and that should be very good for the retail luxury segment of the market," Patrick Dunkerley of the Scout Mid-Cap Fund said on CNBC this morning. "We think investor should be kicking the tires on stocks like Coach, Tiffany and Macy's" and other purveyors of luxury goods for buying opportunities, he said.
Joseph Feldman of Telsey Advisory Group added that overall discretionary trends are encouraging, with Target missing on its headline sales number but reporting improved sales of discretionary items like clothing. He also likes Home Depot, Lowe's, Bed Bath & Beyond and Williams-Sonoma.
Walmart doesn't report with the rest of the retailers. In its annual report to shareholders a few weeks ago, the discount giant reported sales rose just 1 percent in fiscal 2010, its worst gain on record. Walmart will hold its annual meeting on June 4. Investors will be looking to see what measures Walmart is taking to help juice sales and retain higher-income customers that flocked to the stores for the first time during the recession.
Shares of major cable firms such as Comcast , Time WarnerCable and Cablevision tumbled amid concerns that the government wants to assert more control over broadband policy.
No major earnings reports came out this morning. After the bell today, Kraft Foods will report. Analysts expect the Dow component to see 45 cents a share, unchanged from a year earlier. Videogame developer Activision Blizzard is also scheduled to report.
On Friday, Berkshire Hathaway is expected to report earnings after the closing bell.
In today's economic news, jobless claims dropped to 444,000last week, while productivity rose 3.6 percent in the first quarter.
And, investors will also be watching the government's jobs report, due out on Friday. Economists expect to see 175,000 jobs were added to nonfarm payrolls in April, according to the latest Reuters survey.
Volume was more than double the daily average: About 2.57 billion shares changed hands on the New York Stock Exchange. 2.47 billion of those were decliners, which means there were twice as many decliners today as there usually are total shares traded on the Big Board.
Still to Come:
THURSDAY: Earnings from Activision, Kraft after the bell
FRIDAY: Goldman Sachs shareholders meeting; April jobs report; Fed's Plosser speaks; consumer credit; earnings from Liberty Media; earnings from Berkshire Hathaway
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