Wall Street plunged again in a crisis of confidence today as anxieties about the financial system still ran high after the government's bailout of insurer American International Group Inc. The Dow Jones industrial average dropped nearly 450 points.
Investors seeking the safety of hard assets and government debt sent gold, oil and short-term Treasurys soaring.
By the end of the day, the Dow had fallen 449.36, or 4.06 percent, to 10,609.66.
The Federal Reserve is giving a two-year, $85 billion loan to AIG in exchange for a nearly 80 percent stake in the company after it lost billions in the risky business of insuring against bond defaults. Wall Street had feared that the conglomerate, which has its tentacles in various financial services industries around the world, would follow the investment bank Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. into bankruptcy. The ramifications of the world's largest insurer going under likely would have far surpassed the demise of Lehman.
"People are scared to death," said Bill Stone, chief investment strategist for PNC Wealth Management. "Who would have imagined that AIG would have gotten into this position?"
He said the fear gripping the markets reflects investors' concerns that AIG wasn't able to find a lifeline in the private sector and that Wall Street is now fretting about what other institutions could falter. Over the past year, companies including Lehman and AIG have sought to reassure investors that they weren't in trouble, and now the market isn't sure who can and can't be trusted.
"No one's going to be believing anybody now because AIG said they were OK along with everybody else," Stone said.
The two independent Wall Street investment banks left standing — Goldman Sachs Group Inc. and Morgan Stanley — remain under scrutiny, as does Washington Mutual Inc., the country's largest thrift bank. Morgan Stanley revealed its quarterly earnings early late Tuesday, posting a better-than-expected 7 percent slide in fiscal third-quarter profit. It insisted that it is surviving the credit crisis that has ravaged many of its peers.
Lehman filed for bankruptcy protection on Monday, and by late Tuesday had sold its North American investment banking and trading operations to Barclays, Britain's third-largest bank, for the bargain price of $250 million. Over the weekend, Merrill Lynch & Co., the world's largest brokerage, sold itself in a last-ditch effort to avoid failure to Bank of America Corp.
"It's still uncertain ground we're treading. We just have to move on a daily basis," said Jack A. Ablin, chief investment officer at Harris Private Bank.