Bear territory blues

It's official: The stock market bulls have left the building. What took them so long?

Published July 2, 2008 9:48PM (EDT)

The dismal performance of the Dow Jones Industrial Average in June resurrected a phrase we haven't heard much in the last couple of months: "since the Great Depression." As in, the worst June for stocks since...

July is only two days old, but so far, it's not looking much better. All the major U.S. stock indices took big hits on Wednesday -- the Dow was down 166 points, closing at 11,465, the lowest mark since September 2006. As of Wednesday, the Dow is officially in "bear territory" -- 20 percent down from its October 2007 high.

The reasons for Wall Street's gloom are straightforward. Surprisingly low U.S. oil inventory numbers pushed oil futures up again, a bad jobs report suggested some truly grim jobs figures might be released on Thursday, and General Motors' share price was hammered -- one Merrill Lynch analyst even speculated that the company might be forced into bankruptcy. There are no easy fixes to either the housing or the energy crisis, and there is increasing chatter in financial circles worrying that the credit crunch is heating up again.

Remember back when the housing bust was just gathering momentum? The last refuge of die-hard real estate boosters was to argue that since the general state of the economy was good, the housing market would quickly rebound. Lasting damage would be minimal. But with the benefit of hindsight we now see that the housing bust ended up weakening the broader economy to the point where a well-aimed oil price sucker punch could deliver a knockout blow. In the space of just a few months, we've gone from wondering why higher oil prices weren't exerting a greater drag on the economy to watching a major structural transformation in how Americans live play out as if on fast-forward. Public transit is suddenly crowded, SUVs are an endangered species, the most recently built suburban communities are one step away from ghost towns.

And all this is occurring against the backdrop of a decade in which wages for working- and middle-class Americans stagnated, the state of healthcare coverage declined, the richest got even richer, and the federal government engaged in a combo spending spree/tax cut binge that severely constrains its ability to take any dramatic corrective action.

Bear territory, indeed.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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Globalization Great Recession How The World Works Stock Market U.s. Economy