Stocks Hammered By Economic Fears

Major indexes tumbled Friday after more recession warnings, a huge writedown at AIG, and reports that Ambac's bailout has hit a snag

Wall Street should be thankful Feb. 29 comes only once every four years. On 2008's Leap Day, bad news on the economy and the health of the financial sectors combined to spook investors and send stock indexes tumbling.

The Dow Jones industrial average fell 315.79 points, or 2.51%, to 12,266.39 on Friday. The broader S&P 500 dropped 37.05 points, or 2.71%, to 1,330.64. And the tech-heavy Nasdaq composite index dropped 60.09 points, or 2.58%, to 2,271.48.

A rally earlier in the week is "distant memory," said Joe Liro of Stone & McCarthy Research Associates. That rally was "built on optimism that the worst might be over for financial institutions suffering under the weight of credit bets that have gone woefully wrong."

Now that worries about the financial sector are back, there is also "nervousness about what impact the recent slide in the dollar and sharp rise in commodities -- including a jump in crude oil prices to $103 a barrel -- will have on the economy," Liro wrote.

"The major trend is still firmly bearish, and we still believe there is a possibility that another down leg could take place" in the market, according to S&P chief technical strategist Mark Arbeter.

All 30 members of the Dow fell in price on Friday. On the New York Stock Exchange, four stocks rose for every 27 that lost value. On the Nasdaq, the ratio was 23 to 6 negative.

The S&P 500, which looked ready to end the month with a slight gain, instead posted a 2.3% loss in February, which followed a loss of more than 6% in January.

Already discouraged by downbeat comments on the economy by Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke in his Feb. 27-28 testimony before Congress, investors had to contend with another gloomy view. A new study prepared by several prominent economists and released Friday has concluded mortgage crisis and resulting credit crunch are likely to have a big negative impact on economic growth over the coming year, trimming GDP growth by 1.3%.

Then there was the data. Economic reports released Friday showed flat consumer spending and declining manufacturing activity, though a closely watched consumer sentiment gauge posted a slight uptick in February.

U.S. personal spending rose 0.4% in January, while income rose 0.3%. But those gains were offset by higher prices. The personal spending deflator rose 0.4% for the month, and is up 3.7% year over year. "Rising prices are eating into consumers' disposable income and real consumer spending has started the first quarter on a weak note," said economist John Ryding of Bear Stearns.

The Chicago purchasing managers' index, a key regional manufacturing gauge, fell to 44.5 in February from 51.5 in January. The Chicago PMI reading is much worse than expected and is at its lowest level since 2001. The employment index fell to 33.5 from 47, but new orders improved to 48.8 from 44.7.

"Regional manufacturing surveys have gone from bad to worse, and collectively they are flashing recession," said Ryan Sweet of Moody's Economy.com.

Federal funds futures, a measure of expectations for future rate cuts by the Federal Reserve, are soaring, pushed higher by worry about the economy and Bernanke's testimony on Wednesday and Thursday, Action Economics says. The market implies a 100% chance of a half-point cut to the funds rate in March, with a 40% change for a three-quarters point cut.

In other economic news, a final February reading on consumer sentiment improved slightly. The Reuters/University of Michigan measure improved to 70.8 from a preliminary 69.6. But the measure is still down from 78.4 in January, and is at its worst level since 1992.

The consumer sentiment index has fallen 30% from the beginning of 2007. "Past declines of this magnitude have always been associated with a subsequent recession," Richard Curtin, director of the survey, said in a statement.

Friday’s reports heightened fears the economy has slipped into a recession or is on the verge of one. And that would assure the Fed will cut rates at its Mar. 18 policy meeting, says S&P MarketScope. The debate is whether the FOMC will cut the Fed funds rate target by 50 basis points or 75 basis points.

Then there were the negative headlines from the financial sector. Insurance giant American International Group (AIG) posted a $2.08 per share loss, vs. $1.31 a year ago. The results include an $11.5 billion pretax loss on credit investments that remain on AIG's books. AIG said it expects the U.S. housing market to remain weak and that credit market uncertainty will likely persist. Continuing market deterioration would cause AIG to report additional unrealized market valuation losses and impairment charges.

Amid worries a bailout plan won't materialize, shares of bond insurer Ambac (ABK) fell Friday. The stock recovered in the afternoon when Moody's Investors Service said it would give the insurer more time to raise capital before the ratings agency reconsiders Ambac's credit rating. But the stock ended the day down 5.6%.

Billionaire Wilbur Ross will purchase $250 million in stock of bond insurer Assured Guaranty Ltd. (AGO) and committed to buying up to another $750 million. Assured Guaranty is one of the strongest of the bond insurers, which have been hurt by the subprime credit crisis.

Also, Reuters reported that tender option bond programs are selling "multiple billions" of dollars of U.S. municipal bonds, accelerating a market slide.

Also moving the market Friday, Dell (DELL) disappointed with its earnings report, while Valero Energy (VLO) announced a $3 billion addition to its stock buyback plan.

April WTI crude oil futures, which rose to a record high of $103.05 per barrel overnight, fell 87 cents to $101.72 on profit taking before the weekend.

April gold futures were up $7.50 to a record $975 per ounce. The economic slowdown has triggered a wave of commodities buying that has left some observers fearful of a bubble burst in the near future, reports S&P MarketScope. Regardless, gold charts show the yellow metal on solid path toward the $1,000 level, says S&P.

The dollar was seesawing lower on expectations of lower U.S. interest rates, while the euro moved off record highs.

Among stocks in the news, Dell (DELL) posted earnings of 31 cents, vs. 32 cents a year ago, as revenue rose 10%. Costs to restructure the computer firms' business may "adversely impact" the company's profits in the near term, says company executives, who also worry about more conservative spending by customers.

Valero Energy Corp. (VLO) announced an addition $3 billion in its stock buyback plan. The firm's board also approved the company's largest ever capital investment project, a $2.4 billion expansion of a Texas refinery.

Kohl's Corp. (KSS) reported earnings of $1.31 per share, vs. $1.48 a year ago, as same-store sales fell 4% but total sales were slightly higher. The retailer expects earnings of $3.15 to $3.50 this year, which is below analyst expectations, while same-store sales are expected to be flat or fall up to 3%. Kohl's plans to open 70 to 75 stores in the next year, with 28 open this spring.

The Gap (GPS) posted earnings of 35 cents per share, vs. 27 cents a year ago. Same-store sales fell 3% and net sales dropped 5% for the owner of the Gap, Old Navy and Banana Republic retail chains. The company plans to raise its annual dividend from 32 to 34 cents per share, and also announced a $1 billion addition to its stock buyback plan.

European stocks fell on Thursday. In London, the FTSE 100 index was down 1.36% to 5,884.30. In Paris, the CAC 40 Index dropped 1.53% to 4,790.66, and in Germany the DAX index lost 1.67% to 6,748.31.

Asian stocks were also lower. In Japan, the Nikkei 225 index fell 2.32% to 13,603.02, and Hong Kong's Hang Seng Index dropped 1.06% to 24,331.67.

Treasury market

Treasury prices rallied Friday, benefiting from the more than three hundred point decline for the Dow Jones industrial average related to weak economic reports and disappointing earnings reports from AIG and Dell. The 10-year Treasury note rose 1-06/32 to 99-25/32 for a yield of 3.52%. The 30-year Treasury was up 1-15/32 to 99-06/32 for a yield of 4.42%. The 2-year note rose 11/32 to 100-22/32 for a yield of 1.64%.