Wall Street can't find any buyers

NEW YORK — A relentless sell-off in the stock market Monday blew through barriers that would have been unthinkable just weeks ago, and investors warned there was no reason to believe buyers will return anytime soon.

The Dow Jones industrial average plummeted below 7,000 at the opening bell and kept driving lower all day, finishing at 6,763 — a loss of nearly 300 points. Each of the 30 stocks in the index lost value for the day.

And the Standard & Poor's 500 stock index, a much broader measure of the market's health, dipped below the psychologically important 700 level before closing just above it. It hadn't traded below 700 since October 1996.

Investors were worried anew about the stability of the financial system after insurer American International Group posted a staggering $62 billion loss for the fourth quarter, the biggest in U.S. corporate history — and accepted an expanded bailout from the government.

But beyond daily headlines, Wall Street seems to have given up the search for a reason to believe that the worst is over and the time is ripe to buy again.

"As bad as things are, they can still get worse, and get a lot worse," said Bill Strazzullo, chief market strategist for Bell Curve Trading, who said he thinks the Dow might fall to 5,000 and the S&P to 500.

The Dow's descent has been breathtaking. It took only 14 trading sessions for the average to fall from above 8,000 to below 7,000. For the year, the Dow has lost 23 percent of its value.

Its last close below 7,000 was May 1, 1997 — a time when the market was barreling to one record high after another because of the boom in technology stocks, but often suffered big drops as investors worried about inflation and rising interest rates.

This time around, Wall Street analysts seem to think that a stock market recovery will first require signs of health among financial companies, and on Monday those signs seemed further away than ever.

HSBC PLC, Europe's largest bank by market value, said it needs to raise about $18 billion, reported a 70 percent drop in earnings for last year, and announced plans to scale back U.S. lending and cut 6,100 jobs.

Citigroup stock lost 20 percent of its value and fell to a paltry $1.20 a share, and Bank of America lost 8 percent.

"The economy definitely has deteriorated since November," said Sean Simko, head of fixed income management at SEI Investments. "It's just the fact that we haven't seen signs of improving or stabilizing, per se, which is adding to the morass of the market."

Mixed economic readings provided little reason to expect a turnaround. Personal spending and incomes both rose for January, but private sector wages and salaries, the key component of incomes, actually fell for a fifth straight month. That reflected the wave of layoffs occurring as the recession, already the longest in a quarter-century, intensifies.

Employers cut a net total of 598,000 jobs in January, the most in more than three decades, as the unemployment rate shot up to a 16-year high of 7.6 percent.

And Friday, the government will report the national unemployment rate and job losses for February. Those figures have been worse month after month.

Because of all the problems facing the economy, the January rebound in consumer spending was not seen as the start of an upward trend.

"Household wealth continues to fall rapidly, employment is falling steeply and consumer sentiment is at or near all-time lows," said Nigel Gault, chief U.S. economist at IHS Global Insight. "These are not the ingredients of a consumer recovery."