A worldwide market slump gains traction

A trader on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. The main US indexes are still close to their record highs.
A trader on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. The main US indexes are still close to their record highs.

NEW YORK — The ascent of developing countries over the last decade has been fueled by two global trends: the steady rise of China and the willingness of the Federal Reserve to stimulate the economy.

Now, with both trends starting to retreat, investors have been heading for the exits in markets as far removed as Buenos Aires, Istanbul, and Beijing, with effects spilling over into the rest of the world.

A decline this week picked up speed and spread around the globe Friday, leading to the first sustained drop in US stock indexes in 2014. The Standard & Poor’s 500 stock index fell 2.1 percent Friday, to end its worst week since June 2012.


But the damage is expected to be worse in places that have relied on demand for raw resources in China, whose economic advance is slowing. An index of Chinese manufacturing growth released Thursday showed that the most important cog in the country’s economy, the world’s second-largest, was contracting for the first time in six months.

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The damage has been particularly severe in countries that are already suffering from political instability, like Turkey and Argentina. Turkey’s currency fell to a record low against the dollar Friday, a drop that will hit the purchasing power of everyone in the country.

On a street corner in Istanbul, Yilmaz Gok, 51, said, “I’m a retiree making ends meet on a small pension and all I care about is a possible increase in prices.”

“I will need to cut further,” he said. “Maybe I should use my natural gas heater less.”

The concerns about developing economies are being heightened by the Fed’s recent decision to begin pulling back on the bond-buying stimulus programs that have helped keep interest rates low around the world. Now, many countries that had come to rely on those low rates could face a surge in borrowing costs and a period of painful readjustment. Many emerging countries could also be hurt if investors choose to pull their money to chase returns in the United States and Europe.


“A lot of these currencies are getting trashed and people’s standards of living are going down,” said Michael Purves, the chief global strategist at Weeden & Co. “There is a potential for social unrest to accelerate.”

The slump this week was the first serious break in a long stock market rally that took the broad US stock market up nearly 30 percent last year, fueled by signs of an economic recovery. The extent of the rise had led many sophisticated investors to expect some kind of pullback.

“This is a convenient and healthy short-term pullback,” said David Lafferty, the chief market strategist for Natixis Global Asset Management. “The market really needs some time to digest last year’s gains.”

In the rest of the world, the damage so far is less severe than it was during similar turmoil in emerging markets last summer, when the Fed first talked about easing its bond-buying programs. Most markets ended up bouncing back from that episode. But there is a growing recognition that the developing world will not be the engine of growth that it has been for much of the last decade.

In China, the economy is still growing faster than almost anywhere else, but the pace is slowing and the government is intent on developing an economy that is less intent on exporting goods. This is weighing on everything from the soybean industry in Brazil to the nickel mines of Mozambique.


Economists are carefully watching the United States for any signs that it is vulnerable to the weakness overseas or that the economic recovery is slowing independently. The most recent monthly employment report showed a sharp slowdown in job creation for the first time in months and data this week showed that home sales came in slightly lower than expected.

But the main US indexes are still within a few percent of their record highs. The S&P 500 ended Friday down 2.1 percent, or 38.17 points, at 1,790.29, bringing it down 3.1 percent for the year. The Dow Jones industrial average fell 2 percent, or 318.24 points, to 15,879.11. The Nasdaq Composite index fell 2.2 percent to 4,128.88.

An array of US economic data has continued to point to an economic recovery that is gaining strength and could actually benefit if investors are looking for somewhere to put money that was previously in developing countries.

“There’s a part of this that actually strengthens the US,” Purves said. “You may have a flight to the best house on the block.”