WASHINGTON — The failure of the bailout package in Congress literally dropped jaws on Wall Street and triggered a historic selloff – including a terrifying decline of nearly 500 points in mere minutes as the vote took place, the closest thing to panic the stock market has seen in years.
The Dow Jones industrial average lost 777 points Monday, its biggest single-day fall ever, easily beating the 684 points it lost on the first day of trading after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
As uncertainty gripped investors, the credit markets, which provide the day-to-day lending that powers business in the United States, froze up even further.
At the New York Stock Exchange, traders watched with faces tense and mouths agape as TV screens showed the House vote rejecting the Bush administration's $700 billion plan to buy up bad debt and shore up the financial industry.
Activity on the trading floor became frenetic as the "sell" orders blew in. The selling was so intense that just 162 stocks on the Big Board rose, while 3,073 dropped.
The Dow Jones Wilshire 5000 Composite Index recorded a paper loss of $1 trillion across the market for the day, a first.
The Dow industrials, which were down 210 points at 1:30 p.m. EDT, nose-dived as traders on Wall Street and investors across the country saw "no" votes piling up on live TV feeds of the House vote.
By 1:42 p.m., the decline was 292 points. Then the bottom fell out. Within five minutes, the index was down about 700 points as it became clear the bill was doomed.
"How could this have happened? Is there such a disconnect on Capitol Hill? This becomes a problem because Wall Street is very uncomfortable with uncertainty," said Gordon Charlop, managing director with Rosenblatt Securities.
"The bailout not going through sends a signal that Congress isn't willing to do their part," he added.
While investors didn't believe that the plan was a cure-all and it could take months for its effects to be felt, most market watchers believed it was at least a start toward setting the economy right and unlocking credit.
"Clearly something needs to be done, and the market dropping 400 points in 10 minutes is telling you that," said Chris Johnson, president of Johnson Research Group. "This isn't a market for the timid."
Before trading even began came word that Wachovia Corp., one of the biggest banks to struggle from rising mortgage losses, was being rescued in a buyout by Citigroup Inc.
That followed the recent forced sale of Merrill Lynch & Co. and the failure of three other huge banking companies - Bear Stearns Cos., Washington Mutual Inc. and Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc., all of them felled by bad mortgage investments.
And it raised the question: Which banks are next, and how many? The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. lists more than 110 banks in trouble in the second quarter, and the number has probably grown since.
Wall Street is contending with all of it against the backdrop of a credit market - where bonds and loans are bought and sold - that is barely functioning because of fears that anyone lending money will never be paid back.
More evidence could be found Monday in the Treasury's three-month bill, where investors were stashing money, willing to accept the tiniest of returns simply to be sure that their principal would survive. The yield on the three-month bill was 0.15 percent, down from 0.87 percent and approaching zero, a level reached last week when fear was also running high.
Analysts said the government needs to find a way to help restore confidence in the markets.
"It's probably fair to say that we are not going to see any significant stability in the credit markets or the stock market until we see some sort of rescue package passed," said Fred Dickson, director of retail research for D.A. Davidson & Co.
The bailout bill failed 228-205 in the House, and Democratic leaders said the House would reconvene Thursday in hopes of a quick vote on a revised bill.
"We need to put something back together that works," Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson said. "We need it as soon as possible."
The Dow fell 777.68 points, just shy of 7 percent, to 10,365.45, its lowest close in nearly three years. The decline also surpasses the record for the biggest decline during a trading day - 721.56 at one point on Sept. 17, 2001, when the market reopened after 9/11.
In percentage terms, it was only the 17th-biggest decline for the Dow, far less severe than the 20-plus-percent drops seen on Black Monday in 1987 and before the Great Depression.
Broader stock indicators also plummeted. The Standard & Poor's 500 index declined 106.62, or nearly 9 percent, to 1,106.39. It was the S&P's largest-ever point drop and its biggest percentage loss since the week after the October 1987 crash.
The Nasdaq composite index fell 199.61, more than 9 percent, to 1,983.73, its third-worst percentage decline. The Russell 2000 index of smaller companies fell 47.07, or 6.7 percent, to 657.72.
A huge drop in oil prices was another sign of the economic chaos that investors fear. Light, sweet crude fell $10.52 to settle at $96.36 on the New York Mercantile Exchange as investors feared energy demand would continue to slide amid further economic weakness. And gold, where investors flock when they need a relatively secure investment, rose $23.20 to $911.70 on the Nymex.
Marc Pado, U.S. market strategist at Cantor Fitzgerald, said investors are worried about the spread of troubles beyond banks in the U.S. to Europe and other markets.
"Things are dying and breaking apart," he said.
The federal Office of Thrift Supervision, one of the government's banking regulators, indicated that the market was overreacting to the House vote and that its fears about the financial system are misplaced.
"There is an irrational financial panic taking place today, and we support and applaud the continuing efforts of Secretary Paulson and congressional leadership to restore liquidity and public confidence," John Reich, Director of the federal Office of Thrift Supervision, said in a statement.
The plan would have placed caps on pay packages of top executives that accepted help from the government, and included assurances the government would ultimately be reimbursed by the companies for any losses.
The Treasury would have been permitted to spend $250 billion to buy banks' risky assets, giving them a much-needed cash infusion. There also would be another $100 billion for use at the president's discretion and a final $350 billion if Congress signs off.
But Wall Street found further reason for worry overseas. Three European governments agreed to a $16.4 billion bailout for Fortis NV, Belgium's largest retail bank, and the British government said it was nationalizing mortgage lender Bradford & Bingley, which has a $91 billion mortgage and loan portfolio. It was the latest sign that the credit crisis has spread beyond the U.S.
Business Writers Joe Bel Bruno in New York and Christopher S. Rugaber in Washington contributed to this report.