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Stocks flail on tariff and impeachment news

A mix of growing economic concerns, escalating trade tensions and the opening of an impeachment inquiry against President Donald Trump is making October a spooky month so far for investors.

The Dow started Thursday down as much as 300 points, capping off a three-day plunge of more than 1,000 points. But a few hours later, the index had regained nearly all of its Thursday losses. Adding to the initial woe was a report out Thursday morning from the Institute for Supply Management that showed the U.S. service sector fell to its lowest level in more than three years. 

The broader S&P 500 stock market index is also down 3.5% in the past three days. The biggest driver of the drop is likely the continued trade tension between the U.S. and China, but also the rest of the world as well. Many suspected that a stock market drop would cause the Trump administration to back off the tariffs it has imposed against other nations and promises of more. That has yet to be the case. This week the administration announced a new round of tariffs on $7.5 billion worth of European imports, including such consumer goods as cheese and whiskey. Those tariffs are slated to take affect in the middle of this month.

General Motors, which has been hit by its first large workers strike in a decade amid general unease about the economy, has been one of the worst-performing stocks in the recent market fall, down 7.5% in the past three days. Bank stocks, too, have tumbled along with bond yields, both signs that investor confidence in the economy is waning.

Even with the current dropoff, the S&P 500, which has risen for much of this year, is still 14% higher in 2019, and that could be the biggest problem. The average stock in the S&P 500 now trades, after years of gains, at a price-to-earnings ratio of 18.5, based on the latest 12 months of reported earnings. That's higher than it has been for much of the past decade, and considerably higher than where stocks typically trade at the start of economic slowdowns. The stock market's average price-to-earnings ratio fell to just under 9 a decade ago in the depths of the Great Recession.

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