Dow makes stunning comeback

Major gauges erase most of the day's losses, as investors recover from mortgage, credit fears; Dow, Nasdaq, S&P 500 stabilize after falling 10% from 2007 highs.

By Alexandra Twin, senior writer

NEW YORK ( -- Stocks erased most of the session's losses by late afternoon Thursday, as investors worked through the panic about the credit and mortgage markets that had been sparked by Countrywide Financial's latest financial problems.

The Dow Jones industrial average (Charts) lost a few points, erasing virtually all of the day's declines, according to early tallies. The blue-chip barometer had plunged more than 300 points earlier in the afternoon, before recovering and seesawing up through the close.

Is the worst of the stock market selloff over?
  • Absolutely
  • Probably
  • No way
  • Too early to say

The broader S&P 500 (Charts) index gained 0.3 percent and the tech-fueled Nasdaq Composite (Charts) index slid 0.3 percent. Both had posted losses throughout the session, but stabilized near the close.

Here's a look at what was moving near the close.

As of early Thursday afternoon, all three major gauges had been off about 10 percent from the 2007 highs hit in mid-July, the formal definition of a market correction.

Georges Yared, chief investment strategist at Yared Investment Research, said the major gauges probably have another 3 to 5 percent selloff looming before a significant recovery is staged.

"Credit worries are gripping the market," Yared said. "This is an environment where it's shoot now, ask questions later."

Treasury prices rallied as investors sought safety. The dollar slumped versus the yen and fell versus the euro. Oil and gold prices tumbled.

Stocks fell in the morning, with losses accelerating in the early afternoon after the release of a surprisingly weak Philadelphia Fed index, around the same time the New York Stock Exchange put in trading curbs to limit the market's downside. By mid-afternoon, stocks had trimmed some of those losses.

The Dow and Nasdaq have fallen for five sessions in a row, and the S&P 500 has slipped for four of the last five sessions, as investors have retreated from stocks on worries about tightening credit and the fallout from the subprime mortgage market.

Credit worries took center stage again Thursday after Countrywide Financial (Charts, Fortune 500), the largest U.S. mortgage lender, said it was forced to tap an $11.5 billion line of credit to offset its liquidity crunch.

Countrywide's increasing troubles over the last few days have exacerbated fears about a global credit crisis.

Additionally, Moody's Investor Service analysts said that the crisis could cause the collapse of a major hedge fund, Dow Jones newswires reported.

But the selling went well beyond the day's events, said Jack Ablin, chief investment officer at Harris Private Bank

"It's all driven by technical factors at this point, because the fundamentals of the market are good," Ablin said. "But people aren't really looking at the fundamentals right now. They're hitting the sell button."

Individual investors have been bailing out of stocks at record levels, according to the Money Fund Report, released Wednesday. It showed that money market mutual fund assets hit a record $2.65 trillion in the most recent week.

After holding short-term interest rates steady at 5.25 percent for more than a year, many investors and other Wall Street pros are looking to the Federal Reserve to cut interest rates at the central bank's upcoming policy meeting Sept. 18.

"What everyone's waiting for now is to see what the Fed will do at the next meeting," Yared said. "Whether they drop 25 basis points or even 50 to really soothe the markets." There are 100 basis points in one percentage point.

Some analysts have called for the central bank to step in earlier, ahead of the meeting, as it did to soothe markets in 2001 after the events of 9/11.

To that effect, the Fed has been adding additional temporary reserves to the banking system, as well as reminding market participants of the normal reserves it puts in place. The Fed added $17 billion Thursday. Central banks in Europe plowed funds into the monetary system more aggressively than the Fed last week.

But Fed bankers have sought to discourage bets they will cut rates before the next meeting.

St. Louis Fed president William Poole said late Wednesday that it would not be desirable for the Fed to act ahead of the next meeting. Poole, a voting member of the Fed's policy-setting committee, said the turmoil in the markets has not spread to the broader economy.

Meanwhile in Washington, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson said Thursday that the current struggle in financial markets will slow U.S. growth, but not send the economy into a recession. (Paulson elaborated on his remarks in an interview with Fortune Magazine.)

Declines were broad-based, with 24 of 30 Dow components falling, led by Alcoa (Charts, Fortune 500), Boeing (Charts, Fortune 500), United Technologies (Charts, Fortune 500), Caterpillar (Charts, Fortune 500) and Hewlett-Packard (Charts, Fortune 500).

In the broader market, gold, silver, steel, homebuilders and financials were among the hardest hit sectors.

In other news, biotech Amgen (Charts, Fortune 500) slipped after saying late Wednesday it will cut 14 percent of its staff and warned that 2007 earnings won't meet forecasts.

On the upside, Network Appliance (Charts) reported better-than-expected earnings late Wednesday and also boosted its current-quarter revenue outlook, sending shares higher Thursday.

J.C. Penney (Charts, Fortune 500) reported second-quarter profits that topped estimates, the retailer said Thursday morning.

Market breadth was negative. On the New York Stock Exchange, losers topped winners by three to one on volume of 2.02 billion shares. On the Nasdaq, decliners beat advancers by three to two on volume of 2.32 billion shares.

Also hurting Thursday's trading: reports showing that July housing starts and building permits have fallen to a decade low.

In global trade, Asian and European markets ended lower. Elsewhere in North America, the Toronto stock exchange's main index slumped about 500 points, or 3.8 percent.

U.S. light crude oil for September delivery fell $2.53 to $70.80 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange.

COMEX gold for December delivery fell $21.70 to $658 an ounce.

Treasury prices surged in a flight to quality, lowering the benchmark 10-year note yield to 4.61 percent from 4.71 percent late Wednesday. Bond prices and yields move in opposite directions.

In currency trading, the dollar fell to a one-year low versus the yen and also dipped versus the euro.

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