Fear over debt fight spooks investors

Specialist Michael Pistillo, left, calls out prices Wednesday as he works at his post on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.

Specialist Michael Pistillo, left, calls out prices Wednesday as he works at his post on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. Photo by The Associated Press.

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.

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.

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.”

Bond traders were still betting on a last-minute deal on the debt. The yield on the 10-year Treasury note, which should rise when investors believe there is a greater risk they won’t get their money back, has stayed near 3 percent all month.

Even if Washington sails past the deadline without raising the debt limit, bond traders believe the Obama administration will keep up its interest payments and cut spending on everything else. The resulting shock to the economy and other financial markets would make Treasury bonds a safe place for investors to hide, which could result in lower yields.

For individual investors, experts are cautioning against overreaction.

Financial planner Jim Pearman, a principal in Partners in Financial Planning in Roanoke, Va., said he was telling clients his firm isn’t changing its investments based on a “game of chicken” in Congress.

“You have to make two decisions right when you try to time this thing. One is when you get out, and the other is when you get back in,” he said. “It’s hard to make that. We don’t try.”

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