For investors, there was no place to go Thursday.
A day after the Federal Reserve roiled Wall Street when it said it could reduce its aggressive economic- stimulus program later this year, financial markets around the world plunged. A slowdown in Chinese manufacturing and reports of a credit squeeze in the world’s second-biggest economy heightened worries.
The global sell-off began in Asia and quickly spread to Europe and then the U.S., where the Dow Jones industrial average fell 353 points, wiping out six weeks of gains.
But the damage wasn’t just in stocks. Bond prices fell, and the yield on the benchmark 10-year Treasury note rose to 2.42 percent, its highest level since August 2011, although still low by historical standards. Oil and gold also slid.
“People are worried about higher interest rates,” said Robert Pavlik, chief market strategist at Banyan Partners. “Higher rates have the ability to cut across all sectors of the economy.”
The question now is whether the markets’ moves Thursday were an overreaction or a sign of more volatility to come. What is becoming clearer is that traders and investors are looking for a new equilibrium after a period of ultra-low rates, due to the Fed’s bond-buying, which helped spawn one of the great bull markets of all time.
It doesn’t mean the stock run-up is over. After all, the S&P 500 is still up 11.4 percent for the year and 135 percent since a recession low in March 2009. But it may suggest the start of a new phase in which the fortunes of the stock market are tied more closely to the fundamentals of the economy.
And that might not be a bad thing. The reason the Fed is pulling back on the bond-buying is because its forecast for the economy is getting brighter.
The job market is improving, corporations are making record profits and the housing market is recovering.
“People are overreacting a little bit,” said Gene Goldman, head of research at Cetera Financial Group. “It goes back to the fundamentals, the economy is improving.”
The Dow’s drop Thursday — which knocked the average down 2.3 percent to 14,758.32 — was its biggest since November 2011. It comes just three weeks after the blue-chip index reached an all-time high of 15,409. The index has lost 560 points in the past two days, wiping out its gains from May and June
The Standard & Poor’s 500 lost 40.74 points, or 2.5 percent, to 1,588.19. It also reached a record high last month, peaking at 1,669. The Nasdaq composite fell 78.57 points, or 2.3 percent, to 3,364.63.
Small-company stocks fell more than the rest of the market Thursday, a sign that investors are aggressively reducing risk. The Russell 2000 index, which includes such stocks, slumped 25.98 points, or 2.6 percent, to 960.52. The index closed at a record high of 999.99 points Tuesday.
The yield on the 10-year Treasury note rose to 2.42 percent, from 2.35 percent Wednesday. The yield, which rises as the price of the note falls, surged 0.16 percentage point Wednesday after the Fed’s comments. As recently as May 3, it was 1.63 percent.
A Fed policy statement and comments from Chairman Ben Bernanke started the selling in stocks and bonds Wednesday.
Bernanke said that the Fed expects to scale back its massive bond-buying program later this year and end it entirely by mid-2014 if the economy continues to improve.
The bank has been buying $85 billion a month in Treasury and mortgage bonds, a program that has made borrowing cheap for consumers and business. It has also helped boost the stock market.
Alec Young, a global equity strategist at S&P Capital IQ, said investors weren’t expecting Bernanke to say the program could end so quickly, and are adjusting their portfolios in anticipation of higher U.S. interest rates.
“What we’re seeing is a pretty significant sea-change in investor strategy,” Young said.