Friday, May 7, 2010

US stock markets saw an unusually turbulent day yesterday, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA) losing almost a thousand points in thirty minutes, although later recovered somewhat to end the day with a smaller loss.

The DJIA had its worst fall since 1987, a drop of 9% or 998.50 points, before going back up a bit to close with a loss of 3.30% or 347.80 points to a level of 10,520. The Nasdaq fell 82.65 points or 3.44%, and the Standard & Poor’s 500 index dropped 3.24% or 37.75 points.

According to some reports, the quick loss happened because a trader mistyped an order to sell a large amount of stock, causing the stock price to go down enough to trigger orders to sell elsewhere in the market. (By the following day this theory had been abandoned.) Other reports suggested that the biggest markets “slowed” their executions when it became clear that computerized errors were occurring; as a result, the vast majority of buy orders were briefly withdrawn, allowing the free-fall to continue for several minutes.

We don’t know what caused it. We know that that was an electronic trade […] and we’re looking into it

Stock for the Procter & Gamble company fell almost 37% during the sell-off, about 75 minutes to the closing bell. An investigation started into whether any erroneous trades happened.

Procter & Gamble spokeswoman Jennifer Chelune spoke about the incident: “We don’t know what caused it. We know that that was an electronic trade […] and we’re looking into it with Nasdaq and the other major electronic exchanges.”

The Reuters news agency reports that, at their height, the losses cause equity values to lose $1 trillion.

Some stocks saw extreme, but short, changes; for instance, consulting firm Accenture saw its shares plummet from about $42 to four cents, although it later rebounded to close the day at $41.09.

Meanwhile, oil prices also dropped to lows not reached since February. Benchmark crude was down $2.86 to $77.11 in New York.

“The potential for giant high-speed computers to generate false trades and create market chaos reared its head again today,” said Delaware senator Edward Kaufman. “The battle of the algorithms — not understood by nor even remotely transparent to the Securities and Exchange Commission — simply must be carefully reviewed and placed within a meaningful regulatory framework soon.” Kaufman, along with senator Mark Warner from Virginia, called on Congress to investigate the cause of the mass sell-offs.

Nasdaq, meanwhile, says that all trades of stocks at prices 60% higher or lower than the preceding price at or around 2.40 PM “or immediately prior” are to be cancelled; it noted that it coordinated its move with the other exchanges.

Chief investment officer at Fort Pitt Capital Group Charlie Smith said: “I think the machines just took over. There’s not a lot of human interaction. We’ve known that automated trading can run away from you, and I think that’s what we saw happen today.”

In the past three days, the DJIA has lost 631 points, or 5.7%, mainly over concerns about Greece’s ailing, debt-burdened economy. Peter Boockvar an equity strategist for Miller Tabak, commented: “The market is now realizing that Greece is going to go through a depression over the next couple of years. Europe is a major trading partner of ours, and this threatens the entire global growth story.”