Wall Street tumbles as investors flee equities on Greek debt crisis

A trader works on the floor of the stock exchange in New York City, as the Dow Jones Industrial Average plunged  over concerns about Greece.
A trader works on the floor of the stock exchange in New York City, as the Dow Jones Industrial Average plunged over concerns about Greece.AFP

NEW YORK (REUTERS) - US stocks fell sharply in heavy trading on Monday and the S&P 500 and the Dow had their worst day since October after a collapse in Greek bailout talks intensified fears that the country could be the first to exit the euro zone.

The European Central Bank froze funding to Greek banks, forcing Athens to shut banks for a week to keep them from collapsing.

And Greece appeared to confirm it was heading for a default after a government official said the country would not pay a 1.6 billion euro (S$2.16 billion) loan instalment due to the International Monetary Fund on Tuesday.

US investors also worried about Puerto Rico's debt problems and a bear market in China the day before quarter-end and ahead of Thursday's US jobs report and the long weekend for US Independence Day.

"None of that bodes well for people stepping in and buying the dips as has been the mentality most of the year," Michael James, managing director of equity trading at Wedbush Securities in Los Angeles who said US shares could fall again Tuesday.

"Could that reverse itself tomorrow? It's going to take a lot of good news from Greece," he said noting that portfolio managers would not want to show risky equities on their books at the end of the second quarter.

The S&P and Dow Jones Industrial Average had their worst days since Oct 9 and both turned slightly negative for the year to date. The last annual decline for both indexes was 2008. The Nasdaq had its biggest one-day percentage decline on Monday since March 25.

Volatility rose sharply and all 10 S&P sectors retreated while the Global X FTSE Greece exchange-traded fund, which tracks the Athens stock market, fell 20 per cent. In Europe, the blue-chip Euro STOXX 50 index had suffered its biggest one-day fall since 2011.

"There is no mechanism to be ejected from the European Union. This has never happened before," said Brian Battle, director of trading at Performance Trust Capital Partners in Chicago. "When you don't know what could happen you sell. You get on the sidelines."

While the Greek economy is small and most US corporations have limited direct exposure, investors are concerned about the fallout across Europe if Greece exits the euro zone.

A snap Reuters poll of economists and traders found a median 45 per cent probability that Greece would leave the euro zone.

Chinese stocks had closed sharply lower after a volatile day of trading despite surprise monetary easing by the central bank.

On top of this, US territory Puerto Rico faces a restructuring of its US$73 billion debt burden.

The Dow Jones industrial average fell 350.33 points, or 1.95 per cent, to 17,596.35, the S&P 500 lost 43.85 points, or 2.09 per cent, to 2,057.64 and the Nasdaq Composite dropped 122.04 points, or 2.4 per cent, to 4,958.47.

The CBOE Volatility index, a measure of the premium traders are willing to pay for protection against a drop in the S&P 500, jumped 34.5 per cent to 18.86, its highest level in almost five months.

Financials was the worst S&P sector with a 2.44 per cent decline. US banks have an exposure to US$12.7 billion of Greek debt.

JPMorgan Chase, down 2.5 per cent, was the biggest drag on the S&P financial sector followed by Wells Fargo , down 2.4 per cent. Goldman Sachs weighed the most on the Dow with a 2.6 per cent decline.

Assured Guaranty fell 13.3 per cent and MBIA Inc fell more than 23.4 per cent after BTIG downgraded the insurers on concerns over Puerto Rico's debts.

Declining issues outnumbered advancing ones on the NYSE by 2,874 to 282, for a 10.19-to-1 ratio on the downside; on the Nasdaq, 2,469 issues fell and 367 advanced for a 6.73-to-1 ratio favouring decliners.

The benchmark S&P 500 index was posting 2 new 52-week highs and 25 new lows; the Nasdaq Composite was recording 48 new highs and 126 new lows.

About 7.3 billion shares changed hands on US exchanges, compared with the 6.3 billion average for the month-to-date, according to data from BATS Global Markets.