A triple-dose of economic worries sent global financial markets sharply lower Thursday. There are mounting concerns about Europe's debt situation and signals of U.S. economic weakness triggered a sell-off of shares on both sides of the Atlantic, following earlier losses in Asia.
For weeks, the Greek debt crisis has taxed investor optimism while sapping strength from the Euro. The global downward market trend accelerated Thursday with two economic reports that cast doubt on the sustained vitality of the U.S. economic recovery.
First, the Labor Department reported a spike in the number of Americans filing for jobless benefits. The number of newly-laid off workers jumped unexpectedly to 471,000 last week, 25,000 more than the previous week. PNC Financial chief economist Stuart Hoffman says the data point to continued layoffs and weak job creation in the United States.
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"What you want to see over time is this number move not only below 450 [thousand], but below 400,000 before the economy is generating the strong job gains that we would all like to see.
Economists have long assumed that job creation would lag behind overall improvement of economic conditions in the United States. But another report has cast doubt on the second part of that assumption. After rising steadily for more than a year, the index of leading economic indicators actually slipped by .1 percent in April, according to a private research group. Six of 10 components of the index deteriorated, including new home permit applications, jobless claims, and factory materials deliveries.
The onslaught of worrisome news is creating an investor climate similar to a brief panic that erupted on May 6,, when the Dow Jones Industrial Average plunged by 1000 points before bouncing back later in the day, according to UBS Financial Services market analyst Art Cashin.
"This is the same trading environment that we had May 6. And if the computers start to go crazy, we could have some problems."
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The events of May 6 triggered an investigation as to whether the feverish sell-off stemmed from a computer glitch or market manipulation.
But not everyone is panicked.
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"No doubt about it: fear levels are up a lot."
Even so, overall economic conditions do not justify that fear, according to Charles Bobrinskoy of Chicago-based Ariel Investments.
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"We remain cautiously optimistic about the U.S. economy. In fact, the manufacturers who are filling inventory levels are telling us that inventories were at unsustainably-low levels, and so business is [now] better. I think this is a case right now of fear getting ahead of reality."
Bobrinskoy spoke on Bloomberg Television.
Markets in Paris and Frankfurt closed down more than 2 percent. London and Tokyo lost just over 1.5 percent on the day. ///Rest Opt// Wall Street's Dow Jones Industrial Average was down more than 3 percent in mid-day trading.