Dow dives hundreds of points as China, oil fears grip markets

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An illustration depicting falling oil prices.

NEW YORK — Fear has overtaken U.S. markets. Crude oil and China remain the major culprits.

The Dow plunged 500 points on Friday afternoon, leaving it on track for the worst day since the late August market freakout. The S&P 500 fell 3.3%, while the Nasdaq lost 4%.

The wave of selling dashes hopes that recent signs of stability in the market signified Wall Street’s panic attack was over. On Thursday, the Dow jumped 228 points, its best day since early December.

“The sentiment is dominated by fear. Ahead of a long weekend, no one wants to be exposed,” said Sam Stovall, managing director of U.S. equity strategy at S&P Capital IQ.

Stocks are now flirting with critical levels. The S&P 500 broke below the 1,867.01 level it plummeted to during the market mayhem last August. The Nasdaq is also now on pace to close at the lowest level since October 2014.

“There’s a mad rush for the exits! There is one direction to this trade in the immediate term: Lower,” said Peter Kenny, an independent market strategist and founder of Kenny’s Commentary.

Even the White House weighed in on the recent market turmoil. White House spokesman Josh Earnest said on Friday officials are closely watching market movements and their potential impact on the U.S. economy.

Friday’s market slide was fueled by the crash in crude oil prices and China’s stock market tumbling into a bear market.

Oil crash is spooking Wall Street

Stocks have moved almost in lockstep with the price of oil, which plunged another 6% on Friday to as low as $29.28 a barrel. That’s the cheapest it’s been since late 2003. Friday’s plunge was fueled by signs that sanctions on Iran could be lifted as soon as this weekend, exacerbating the supply glut rocking the oil market.

While the oil plunge is great for many consumers because it lowers the price of gas at the pump, it’s been a big negative for stocks lately. First, cheap oil eats into already-shrinking profits for energy companies. Many of the biggest losers on the S&P 500 on Friday were energy stocks, with Marathon Oil, Chesapeake Energy and Murphy Oil all plunging 8% or more.

Secondly, the oil crash is raising fears that poor economic performance around the world is sapping demand. After all, oil demand is seen as a strong indicator of growth.

Warning signs flash on U.S. economy

Also, it’s not clear consumers are really spending their gas savings at the stores. The government said on Friday that U.S. retail sales dipped in the critical month of December. That’s never good.

Economic concerns were reinforced by a new gauge on New York-area manufacturing activity, which unexpectedly plunged in January.

Meanwhile, shares of Intel, one of the blue chips of the tech world, plunged 8% as the slowdown in PC demand dented profits more than feared.

Stocks in China keep crumbling

Wall Street continues to take its cues from China, where the Shanghai Composite plunged another 3.6% on Friday. That leaves the benchmark index more than 20% below its December high and in a bear market.

China’s stock market has been rocked by the slowdown in the country’s economy and Beijing’s failed efforts to stabilize financial markets. The turbulence has eroded confidence on Wall Street that Chinese authorities have a firm grip on the situation.

Signs of fear in financial markets are present everywhere. On Friday the 10-year Treasury yield slipped below the 2% level for the first time since October. That doesn’t happen when things are going well.

CNNMoney’s Fear & Greed Index, which tracks several indicators to measure market sentiment, continues to flash “extreme fear” and is back in single digits for the first time since the August freakout.

Gold, which tends to rise when people are scared, popped 2% and to $1,095 an ounce on Friday.

Is this the big ‘capitulation day’?

The latest big losses in stocks have some wondering whether Friday could mark a so-called “capitulation day.” Those scary down days occur when investors give up on the markets and can be a sign of a bottom in prices.

“We need a big shakeout to shake off the loose hands. Today might be that day,” said Stovall, adding that it could mean the end of the declines is near.

To determine whether the bottom is in, Mark Luschini, chief investment strategist at Janney Capital, is watching to see if the S&P 500 manages to close above the August 24 lows of 1,867.01.

“That might be an important sign that those lows have become permanent and the market is unwilling to push it below that or if this is something more severe,” said Luschini.

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