Fears Of A Diminished Stimulus Send Stock Market Falling

Some good news on the jobs front sent the stock market down sharply on Thursday morning. Wall Street is worried the Federal Reserve will soon start to phase-out the stimulus its been providing. The positive jobs news makes that phase-out more likely.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish. The stock market usually likes good news about the economy, but that's not always the case. This morning, stocks opened down sharply just after the government announced a surprisingly large drop in initial claims for unemployment benefits. In fact, claims fell to the lowest level since before the recession and the Dow Jones Industrials ended the day down 225 points, a decline of 1.5 percent.

NPR's John Ydstie joins us now to talk about this seemingly perverse reaction to the good news. Hi there, John.

JOHN YDSTIE, BYLINE: Hi, Audie.

CORNISH: So help us understand this big sell-off because you had fewer people going to claim unemployment benefits and that would seem like a sign that economic growth is picking up.

YDSTIE: Yeah. Well, the big reason for the sell-off today was the Federal Reserve. Remember, over the past few years, the value of stocks have not been all about the strength of the economy and the potential value of companies. It's been about all the money the Fed is pumping into the financial system. So the first thing a lot of investors thought when they saw the positive job number wasn't, oh, good, the economy's getting better and the prospects for companies I own are improving.

No, their first thought was, uh-oh, this makes it more likely the Fed is going to dial back the $85 billion a month it's been pumping into the financial system. And, of course, much of that money has been making its way into the stock market. So if the Fed dials back, there won't be as much money coming in, so stocks aren't going to be as valuable.

CORNISH: I mean, haven't we heard this before, though? Back in June, the Fed chairman Ben Bernanke said that the Fed could start reducing the amount of money it's injecting into the system as early as September. And I know we've had a couple pretty solid job reports since then. So why this negative reaction?

YDSTIE: Well, you're right. The markets have had plenty of time to digest the Fed's plan. And, remember, they did sell off sharply back in June after the chairman first made this suggestion. Of course, then they recovered and actually hit new highs. Today, I think there are some other complicating factors. Despite the good jobs number, there were some negative comments from Wal-Mart, the nation's biggest retailer, about sales going forward.

Another retailer, Kohl's, agreed with that. Yesterday, Macy's also reported disappointing results. And today, the big technology equipment company Cisco reported it's cutting 4,000 jobs because of concerns about the global economic situation.

CORNISH: So I'm hearing you say here that there's conflicting news, basically. Good news on jobs, but bad news on consumer demand.

YDSTIE: Right. And investors are thinking, hey, Fed policymakers have been really focused on the job market and it's improving. So they're likely to dial back the stimulus. The concern for investors is that the overall economy maybe isn't that healthy. Just look at Wal-Mart and Cisco. And if the Fed gets the timing wrong, that could mean the economy will slow again and that won't be good for company profits and stocks or your 401(k).

CORNISH: John, thanks for explaining it.

YDSTIE: You're welcome, Audie.

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