NEW YORK – Now what? After three days of relative calm, turbulence returned to Wall Street on Wednesday. Louder warnings of a deep recession and weak corporate earnings took the Dow Jones industrial average down 514 points amid fears that government intervention won't be enough to prevent global economies from faltering.
Previous dramatic drops — two of them more than 700 points — were followed by rebounds. If that doesn't happen this time, the Dow could slip closer to closing below the 8,000 mark, which hasn't happened since March 31, 2003.
Wednesday's sell-off came after poor earnings from large companies in disparate sectors — Wachovia Corp., Boeing and Merck & Co. — illustrated how wide the economic downturn has spread. One bright spot was McDonald's Corp., where third-quarter profits rose thanks to the strength of its low-priced meals.
Even with the aggressive steps the government has already taken, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson told interviewer Charlie Rose on Tuesday that Americans would "have a number of difficult months ahead of us in terms of the real economy."
Since stocks began tumbling on Sept. 15, the Dow has plunged as low as 8,451.19, its close on Oct. 10. On Wednesday, it closed at 8,519.21.
Big rallies last Monday and Thursday were enough to send all the major indexes higher, giving Wall Street its best week since 2003. The Dow gained 4.75 percent for the week — a gain that was erased in Wednesday's trading alone.
This week, the Dow had climbed 413 points Monday, then dropped 231 points Tuesday.
On Wednesday, most major indexes fell 5 percent or more, with the Standard & Poor's 500 down 6 percent. Oil prices hit lows last seen in June 2007, trading below $67 a barrel on worries about weakening demand.
Stocks dropped across Asia and Europe, falling even harder in South America, where Brazil's Bovespa index and Argentina's Merval had losses near 10 percent. Argentina's president announced plans to nationalize private pension funds to protect retirees from the financial crisis.
Mutual funds, pension funds and individual investors lost $700 billion in Wednesday's trading. It was the fifth time since Sept. 29 that the broadest measure of U.S. stocks, the Dow Jones Wilshire 5,000, had lost more than 5 percent in a day. During the prior 25 years, it had only eight days that bad.
For the week, the Dow is up 3.76 percent, the Standard & Poor's 500 index is up 4.65 percent and the Nasdaq composite is down 5.58 percent.
World leaders will gather in Washington on Nov. 15 to discuss the meltdown. A senior administration official said Wednesday that the forum will be the first in a series of international meetings to discuss what economists predict could be a long and deep downturn.
For many U.S. companies, the damage has already begun.
Wachovia, which is being bought by Wells Fargo for about $14 billion in stock, said it lost $23.89 billion in the third quarter, down from earnings of $1.62 billion a year ago. Boeing reported its earnings slumped 38 percent as a strike halted production of commercial jets.
Merck & Co. said it will slash 7,200 jobs as part of a new restructuring program. The drugmaker's third-quarter profit plunged 28 percent, partly due to flat sales. Earnings also fell at paper company Kimberly-Clark Corp., insurer WellPoint Inc. and drug developer Wyeth.
"We are going into what is very clearly a recession mode," Blake Jorgensen, Yahoo's chief financial officer, said in a Tuesday interview. Yahoo is slashing 1,500 jobs while it prepares for a deep downturn likely to extend well into 2009.
"Right now we have 9 million Americans out of work. That's up from 6 million this time last year, and to every trader on the floor, to every trader upstairs, that's the most important number" because consumer spending makes up two-thirds of the economy, said Alan Valdes, vice president of trading firm Hillard and Lyons.
The official arbiter of recessions, the nonpartisan National Bureau of Economic Research, has not called the current downturn a recession.
Bad times have been good for McDonald's. Chief Executive Jim Skinner said that the company is "recession-resistant" and "operating from a position of strength."
McDonald's third-quarter profits rose 11 percent and same-store sales, or sales at stores open at least a year, were notably strong in the third quarter, rising 7.1 percent globally and almost 5 percent in the U.S.
Credit markets have showed some signs of a thaw. Yields on Treasury bills and the interest rates banks charge each other have both fallen back to late-September levels. Bank-to-bank lending rates fell sharply overnight.
The London Interbank Offered Rate, or Libor, on three-month loans in dollars fell to 3.54 percent from 3.83 percent, dropping for an eighth straight day. Libor is important because many mortgage and credit card rates are pegged to it and it's a good barometer of banks' willingness to lend.
Despite declining rates, the volume of loans remained weak.
"We're making slow progress and confidence is returning, but we're still not there yet," said Christopher Cordaro, chief investment officer at RegentAtlantic Capital LLC in Chatham, N.J.
Meanwhile, members of Congress are moving forward with efforts to overhaul the regulatory system. The changes could be the most sweeping since the 1930s, when Congress revamped how the financial system was regulated in response to the 1929 stock market crash and a wave of bank failures.
Democrats in Congress are also pushing efforts to assemble a second economic stimulus program that could total $150 billion or more. On Monday, Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke said a "significant" stimulus package is appropriate. The White House has yet to endorse the idea, but has said President Bush was at least willing to consider a second stimulus measure.