Investors around the world are betting that even with government stimulus and bailout programs, the global recession will just have to run its course.
The problems that slammed stocks last year - ailing banks, foundering automakers, tumbling home prices and cash-strapped consumers - haven't let up. Instead, the issues have festered, and are threatening to push U.S. stocks back to levels not seen since the late 1990s.
As Obama signed his $787 billion stimulus bill and automakers scrambled to come up with restructuring plans, the Dow Jones industrial average closed down 297.81 points, or 3.79 percent, at 7,552.60 - just 31-hundredths of a point above its post-meltdown Nov. 20 close of 7,552.29, which was its lowest close in five-and-a-half years.
One big worry on Wall Street is that General Motors Corp. and Chrysler LLC might not be able to prove by Tuesday's deadline that they can repay billions of dollars in loans and return to profitability. GM has already received $9.4 billion from the government, and could get another $4 billion if the Treasury Department signs off on its viability plan. Chrysler has borrowed $4 billion, and is seeking another $3 billion.
A person briefed on the negotiations said General Motors Corp. and the United Auto Workers were on concessions required as part of the company's government loans.
The drop on Wall Street, which followed sharp pullbacks on overseas exchanges, brought the Dow within 102 points of the five-year trading low of 7,449.37 it reached last November, when investor sentiment was also sliding. The Standard & Poor's 500, index which fell 37.67, or 4.56 percent, to 789.17, came with 48 points of its 11-year low of 741.02.
With the way the market has been trading, those milestones could be breached in one or two sessions.
"We don't think the recession's over until at least the middle of the year, and that's even starting to seem very early," said JPMorgan equities anayst Thomas J. Lee, adding that the market's worries are "nothing new - the magnitudes are worse."
The stock market is usually regarded as a forward-looking mechanism, but Lee pointed out that about one-third of the time, the S&P recovered around the same time as the economy.
"I'm tilting toward thinking we're going to have lows in mid-July," Lee said. "In the meantime, we're stuck in a range."
Wall Street is waiting for more specifics from the government on its various efforts to more adequately assess when to expect growth again. Obama is scheduled to discuss a program Thursday on preventing foreclosures, but investors are particularly anxious for details from the Treasury Department about its new rescue plan for the troubled banking sector.
Over the weekend, a meeting of Group of Seven finance ministers failed to produce any specific steps to revive the global financial system, either.
"The government has their hand on the tiller. They're steering. And that's the problem - the markets are not confident the proper course has been set yet," said Henry Herrmann, chief executive officer at investment management firm Waddell & Reed.
The Nasdaq composite index fell 63.70, or 4.15 percent, to close at 1,470.66.
The decline in U.S. stocks occurred alongside a retreat in markets overseas. Japan's Nikkei stock average fell 1.4 percent; Britain's FTSE 100 fell 2.43 percent; Germany's DAX index fell 3.44 percent; and France's CAC-40 fell 2.94 percent.
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