Stock indexes fall about 1 percent

Friday, November 20, 2009

NEW YORK -- Signs of a subdued economic recovery sent investors out of stocks Thursday and in search of safer assets like the dollar.

Major indexes tumbled about 1 percent, including the Dow Jones industrial average, which lost 94 points but ended well off its low. Energy and material stocks logged the biggest losses as a jump in the dollar sent commodity prices tumbling. Meanwhile, an analyst's downgrade of the chip industry pulled technology shares sharply lower.

As stocks fell, investors flocked to the dollar and Treasurys. The yield on the three-month T-bill, considered one of the safest investments, tumbled to its lowest level since last December. Overseas markets also fell sharply.

In another sign of the market's uneasiness, the Chicago Board Options Exchange's Volatility Index, also known as Wall Street's fear gauge, rose more than 4 percent.

The day's trade was a shift out of riskier assets and back into safe havens like the dollar and Treasurys. After amassing significant gains during an eight-month rally in stocks, investors are hesitant to take on too many extra risks as the year ends, worried that the economy's rebound might not be sustainable.

"Large money managers, going into the end of the year, are looking to protect their gains and are shifting assets," said Adam Gould, senior portfolio manager at Direxion Funds in New York.

For much of this year, investors have been selling dollars and putting their money in assets like stocks and commodities that have the potential to earn higher returns, believing that the economy was recovering. Commodity producers and other companies with major export operations have been among the biggest beneficiaries of the dollar's slide.

Now, investors are starting to wonder whether the dollar's decline has run its course and that other markets have gotten a little overheated considering the challenges the economy still faces, like high unemployment.

The latest data on the economy gave investors little incentive to hold on to stocks. A report from the Labor Department Thursday indicated that the economy is still shedding jobs, and the Mortgage Bankers Association reported a surge in foreclosures.

Still, analysts warn that the dollar's rise Thursday doesn't necessarily mark the beginning of a long-term trend. So long as the Federal Reserve keeps interest rates low to support the economy, the dollar will likely weaken.

Jon Biele, head of capital markets at Cowen & Co., said investors are searching for direction.

"There are a lot of questions out there and not a lot of answers. When you don't have the right information you don't do anything," he said.

According to preliminary calculations, the Dow fell 93.87, or 0.9 percent, to 10,332.44. The Standard & Poor's 500 index fell 14.90, or 1.3 percent, to 1,094.90, while the Nasdaq composite index fell 36.32, or 1.7 percent, to 2,156.82.

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