WASHINGTON — Am I safe?
That’s the question many Americans asked Monday amid a wild roller coaster ride on the stock market. The answer may still be at least a few days off.
The Dow Jones industrial average was off more than 1,000 points at Monday’s turbulent open, an eerie reminder of 2008’s near-meltdown of financial markets that also began in the dog days of late August. By midday, however, the Dow was off just 112 points, a breathtaking upward swing.
Monday’s opening plunge followed a lit fuse that began in Asia, where China’sShanghai composite index finished off 8.5 percent. European exchanges then followed with London’s FTSE closing down 4.67 percent and Germany’s DAX off 4.7 percent.
The economic slowdown in the world’s second largest economy and worries about a lack of transparency in Chinese decision making are drivers of the global rout. But they are not the only reasons for what now has been more than a week of sudden global volatility.
Stock prices generally reflect expectations about the performance of the economy several months ahead. Worries about the global economy more broadly, and how that might affect the U.S. economy, have been a big part of the U.S. volatility.
And it’s not just China weighing on stock prices. Large developing nations such as Brazil are struggling to grow, and in an interconnected world their problems eventually feed into international companies that manufacture there for the local market or export there from the United States. That hurts the bottom line of companies such as Germany’sSiemens or the U.S. giant Caterpillar.
Brazil’s benchmark Bovespa index plunged more than 5 percent within minutes of Monday’s open to lows last seen during the global financial crisis in early 2009. But Brazil depends far more on China as a buyer of its soybeans and other commodity products, and a Chinese slowdown hurts Brazil’s real economy much more than it does the United States.
Europe and Germany, the world’s premier exporter, were also hurt in the global sell-off. Germany’s DAX is down a whopping 22 percent from April.
“Despite improvement in European economic data, companies exposed to global trade, particularly in Germany, have been singled out for special punishment. At this point, the selling may be overdone, especially since investors may be exaggerating Europe’s exposure to China,” Russ Koesterich, chief global investment strategist for investment manager BlackRock, said in a note to investors. “Overall, China represents just 3.7 percent and 5.4 percent, respectively, of eurozone and German exports.”
The U.S. economy, by contrast, looks like the cleanest shirt in the dirty pile.
The United States grew an annual rate of 2.3 percent from April through June and was forecast to pick up speed before the market turmoil. The U.S. unemployment rate stood at 5.3 percent in July, and as long as the labor market continues on a steady path, stock price declines are unlikely to seriously dampen consumer confidence and spending.
In the plus column for consumer confidence, oil prices dipped below $38 a barrel Monday for the first time since 2009. Gasoline prices at the pump are likely to tumble toward $2 a gallon in coming weeks. Manufacturers that use diesel, propane or natural gas will enjoy a windfall.
Potentially on the minus side, roughly 80 percent of full-time American workers have access to an employer-sponsored retirement plan, and their fortunes hang in the balance of the market turmoil. Most savers are invested in mutual funds or 401(k) plans and don’t day-trade individual stocks. Once stocks settle on a bottom, they historically return to an upward climb.
“Most people understand these are not times to panic. If you’re stuck, you’re stuck, and you just wait it out,” said Ken Goldstein, a veteran labor economist at The Conference Board, a New York-based organization that issues monthly surveys of consumer confidence.
The determining factor for consumers is whether the turmoil ends quickly or markets sink further over a period of several more weeks, he said.
“It makes a great deal of difference which of those two roads we’re on,” he said. “And at this stage of the game, it’s too early to know.”
Some of that depends on China, whose leaders have struggled to plug economic leaks ranging from sluggish growth and industrial production to an inflated property market to direct meddling in the stock market.
China’s sudden devaluation of the yuan earlier in the month surprised and spooked global financial markets and set in motion a sell-off that began as a trot and became a gallop. The benchmark Shanghai index is down 38 percent from its June 12 peak despite major government intervention to prop up share prices.
Few foreign investors participate in these stock markets controlled by the Communist Party, so the hemorrhaging in China’s stocks will have few direct global economic effects. But the free fall of Chinese stocks adds to instability at home for Beijing’s leaders, who are already under scrutiny for a recent chemical storage plant explosion that killed at least 128 people, roughly half of them firefighters.
And fears of renewed military conflict between the two Koreas also contributed to Asia’s stock skid.
(McClatchy staff writer Stuart Leavenworth contributed to this report from Beijing.)
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