Investors expect volatility as credit woes persist
The world's financial markets face an uncertain and possibly volatile week as investors await details about how the Treasury will implement the government's financial rescue package - and watch for any further fallout from the credit crisis around the globe.
The markets have switched their focus to the world economy now that the $700 billion bailout plan has become law. And there's reason for their concerns - governments across Europe are rushing to prop up failing banks. On Sunday, Germany said it would follow suit with Ireland and Greece in guaranteeing all private bank accounts.
Those steps are the latest sign that the troubles of U.S. banks, which have all but paralyzed credit markets, are affecting the financial systems of other countries. Banks' hesitation to lend to one another and to many businesses and individuals is the consequence of the bad mortgage debt that the financial rescue is supposed to sweep up. But it's still unclear how quickly financial institutions will be able to hand that debt to the U.S. government and convince the markets they are healthy again.
Wall Street looked to continue the volatility of last week when trading resumed Monday. Stock index futures declined by more than 1 percent late Sunday, pointing to a lower open. Dow Jones industrial average futures fell 136, or 1.31 percent, to 10,228. Standard & Poor's 500 index fell 16.4, or 1.48 percent, to 1,091.90, while Nasdaq 100 futures fell 15.00, or 1.02 percent, to 1,462.50.
Doug Roberts, chief investment strategist at ChannelCapitalResearch.com, said the steps taken by governments abroad are welcome because a broad response, not simply the U.S. bailout, is needed to help steady the world's financial system.
"A lot of the actions that are occurring overseas are good," he said. "What you really need now is stabilization and that really comes from the government."
Roberts said the Federal Reserve and other central banks likely will continue to move in as needed to help shore up the markets. But he thinks bringing lasting calm to credit markets and financial institutions will take longer to work out than many observers predict.
"This is much more expansive than anybody is assuming," said Roberts. "I think that this whole bailout bill is the first step in a series of steps."
Still, he said policymakers likely will try to hold off on moves like rate cuts until they determine they have little choice. The fear, he said, is that the market could be unimpressed and policymakers would have few tools left to restore investors' confidence.
"If one doesn't work what are you going to do for an encore?"
Roberts and other market watchers say it's possible that the Fed, and perhaps other central banks, could cut interest rates this week - ahead of the central bank's scheduled meeting at month's end - if the credit markets don't show signs of life. With oil prices well off their midsummer highs and indicators pointing to a slower economy, the Fed's worries about inflation are less than they had been, making it easier to justify a rate cut.
With so many unknowns, it's likely to be a choppy ride on Wall Street for some time as the Treasury Department starts flexing the new powers granted by the financial rescue, which President Bush signed into law Friday shortly after the House passed a sweetened bill on the second try.
"You're going to have a lot of volatility and we're going to get a whole lot of nowhere in the next few weeks," said Frank Ingarra, co-portfolio manager at Hennessy Funds.
Investors will be straining to see how the Treasury goes about purchasing banks' debt and what prices the unwanted assets might fetch. If the government pays too little it risks sending more banks into failure by depleting their asset bases. But paying too much could artificially strengthen banks that made bad decisions in lending and hurt taxpayers.
"I think it's a little bit more 'show me' than 'tell me' here," Ingarra said, referring to investors' desire to see proof that the debt causing the lockup in the credit markets is being absorbed.
Still, he contends the U.S. government rescue ultimately will help unclog the credit markets.
"I think the bailout is huge. It will help us and help to mitigate the recession that we're in or going to be in," he said.
But even if the government's hand can reanimate the credit markets, investors will still face tough questions about everything from consumer spending and unemployment to the still-struggling housing sector.
On Tuesday, Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke is scheduled to speak on the prospects for the economy and the financial markets. Heads of other Fed banks are slated to comment on the crisis in speeches throughout the week. Investors can be expected to pore over the remarks for any signs of the central bank's next move and indications of how the credit markets and economy are faring.
The Labor Department's weekly report on jobless claims, due Thursday, will draw particularly close attention following Friday's report that employers shed jobs in September for the ninth straight month.
Beyond economic figures, quarterly results are due from Yum Brands Inc., the parent of KFC, Taco Bell and Pizza Hut, as well as grocery chain Safeway Stores Inc. and conglomerate General Electric Co.
Investors also might pause to recount the turmoil that has shaken the markets in the past year. Thursday marks the one-year anniversary of the stock market's peak. On Oct. 9, 2007, the Dow Jones industrial average finished at 14,164.53. The blue chips begin the week down 27 percent last week from that level, at 10,352.38.
More important than stocks, the credit markets where many companies turn for cash loans to finance a range of operations, remained strained Friday even after the bill became law. Demand for safe-haven investments like Treasury bills remains high, illustrating the fear in the markets.