Anxiety about a deadline to raise the nation’s debt ceiling swept across Wall Street on Wednesday and drove the Dow Jones industrial average down almost 200 points. With Washington showing no sign it will find a solution, financial planners around the country said their clients were increasingly worried.
The Dow took a sharp drop during the last two hours of trading and closed down for the fourth session in a row. The declines have grown each day. The market turmoil was a sign that consequences of the debt fight were beginning to materialize in earnest.
With six days to go until the Treasury Department’s Tuesday deadline — raise the national borrowing limit or face an unprecedented federal default and unpredictable fallout in the economy — analysts suggested the market would only grow more volatile.
“The longer we go without any type of hope or concrete plans for resolution, the more concerned investors are going to become,” said Channing Smith, a managing director at the financial firm Capital Advisors Inc.
While no one was panicking, financial professionals who handle the investment accounts of everyday Americans — college funds, retirement accounts and other nest-eggs — said their customers were growing more worried by the day. One said he had not seen this level of anxiety since the 2008 financial crisis.
“We’re getting a ton of calls,” said Bob Glovsky, president of Mintz Levin Financial Advisors in Boston. “It’s all ‘What happens if the U.S. defaults? What’s going to happen to me?’”
The Dow finished the day down 198.75 points, at 12,302.55. About half of the decline came between 2 and 4 p.m., when the market closes for the day. It was the worst fall for the Dow since June 1, with 28 of the 30 component stocks losing value.
While the decline was not close to the stomach-churning days of the fall of 2008, when the Dow lurched lower and higher by 700 points some days, there were signs that fear on Wall Street was growing. The Dow fell 43 points Friday, 88 points Monday and 91 points Tuesday, then more than twice that on Wednesday.
“Right now the clouds are gathering,” said Chris Long, a financial planner in Chicago.
Without a deal by Tuesday, the Obama administration has said the government will be unable to pay all its bills, and could miss checks to Social Security recipients, veterans and others who depend on public help. In addition, credit rating agencies could downgrade their assessment of the government’s finances, further unnerving financial markets and perhaps causing interest rates to rise for everyone.
Already, some investors are taking precautions. Richard Shortt, 66, of Somerville, Mass., worries that a default, or even just a downgrade of U.S. debt, could cause bond and stock markets to tumble. Last week he sold about 10 percent of his stock holdings and put the proceeds into a money-market mutual fund.
“It might just be a short-term decline in the markets, but it could last a week or two while this gets resolved,” said Shortt, a semi-retired small business consultant. “If we do get any sort of debt downgrade, even if we avoid a default, that will change the game a bit.”
Financial advisers typically tell their clients not to tinker with their portfolios or try to play a short-term move in the market to their advantage. Of course, leaving investments alone could be a test of patience for the rest of this week.
On Friday afternoon, for example, it’s plausible that Congress could reach a deal in mid-afternoon and send the Dow soaring 300 points in the final hour of trading. It’s also plausible that there’s still no deal and traders decide staying in the market over the weekend is too risky, and send the Dow plunging.
Investors who rode out the financial turbulence in 2008 without rejiggering their portfolios have made up most of their losses. The stock market has almost doubled since its post-meltdown low in March 2009. Many people who withdrew their money from the stock market during the worst haven’t come close to breaking even.
“Trying to adjust to something on a day-to-day basis is how you get hurt,” Glovsky said. “You’ve got to take a long-term approach.”
One measure of investor concern, the Vix, or volatility index, shot up 14 percent on Wednesday. The tone of the market changed this week, as nervous investors began moving money out of stocks, said Howard Ward, a chief investment officer at asset manager GAMCO.
He said the stock market will likely become more volatile as the weekend nears, and while he said he was not repositioning his portfolio, he admitted: “Right now I’m pretty worried.”