Updated at 6:56 p.m. ET
Stocks plunged Wednesday on deepening worries over a slowdown in the global economy.
The Dow closed down 800 points, or about 3%. Investors have been whipsawed in recent days by mixed signals emerging from the Trump administration about tariffs and the escalating trade war with China.
The jitters were exacerbated amid worrisome economic data from two big countries. Germany posted negative growth in the latest quarter, and China's growth in industrial output fell to a 17-year low.
An even bigger worry: The yield on the benchmark 10-year Treasury note fell below 2-year Treasurys for the first time since 2007. In other words, you would get a higher interest rate for government debt that matures in two years than in 10 years.
Such an inversion in yields has a strong track record of predicting a recession, especially the longer it continues. Each of the last seven recessions, dating to 1969, was preceded by the 10-year falling below the two-year.
Chris Zaccarelli, chief investment officer for Independent Advisor Alliance, commented on Wednesday's bond market turmoil: "The periods when the yield curve inverts are when markets believe we are headed into a recession and either inflation will be lower and/or the Federal Reserve will be forced to lower short term interest rates."
On Tuesday, the Trump administration said it was postponing some of its new tariffs on Chinese imports. The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative announced that 10% tariffs on certain popular consumer items — including cellphones, laptop computers, video game consoles, computer monitors and some toys, shoes and clothing — will be postponed until Dec. 15.
"What we've done is we've delayed it, so that they won't be relevant to the Christmas shopping season," President Trump told reporters.
The delays affect about $160 billion worth of imports, according to calculations by the advocacy group Tariffs Hurt the Heartland. Tariffs on an additional $112 billion worth of Chinese imports are still set to take effect on Sept. 1 as scheduled.
In previous audio and Web versions of this story, we said that China's industrial output fell to a 17-year low. In fact, it is the growth in industrial output that fell that low.
AILSA CHANG, HOST:
Things were pretty ugly on Wall Street today. The Dow Jones Industrial Average tumbled, falling 800 points, losing 3% of its value. The sell-off followed fresh signs that major economies around the world are beginning to falter. I'm joined now by NPR senior business editor Uri Berliner, who's going to make sense of all of this for us.
URI BERLINER, BYLINE: Of course.
CHANG: (Laughter) All right, so just walk us through what happened today.
BERLINER: So the sell-off was deep and very broad. All the major stock market indexes fell sharply - the Dow, the S&P 500 and the Nasdaq. Trade, once again, seemed to be a big factor. Just yesterday, markets rallied, and there was an upbeat mood on Wall Street. That was after the Trump administration announced it was going to delay tariffs on a wide range of Chinese imports. And it was seen as a breather from the trade war. But today, suddenly, there was a complete reversal of the mood. It got pretty dark.
CHANG: So why did things turn around so abruptly?
BERLINER: So, you know, as you noted, there is increasing evidence of economic weakness around the world. Just today, we learned Germany's economy shrank in the latest quarter. That's Europe's most important economy. Germany relies heavily on trade and exports for its prosperity. Trade tensions are affecting Germany's important car industry. And over in China, there's new evidence that its economy, too, is slowing. Growth in the U.S. is also starting to weaken. In the second quarter, the economy grew just 2.1%. That's down from earlier in the year. So you have the big three - U.S., China and Europe - all slowing down at the same time. That's not a happy combination for the stock market.
CHANG: And then on top of all this, I understand there was an ominous signal coming from the bond market as well.
BERLINER: That's right.
BERLINER: The interest rate on 10-year - on the 10-year Treasury note briefly fell below the yield on the two-year rate. That's unusual, and it's the first time that's happened since 2007. This is called an inverted yield curve. And if it persists, it's often seen as a bad sign for the economy. An extended inversion between these two interest rates has preceded the past seven recessions. Now, most economists don't believe the U.S. is headed for a recession soon. But...
BERLINER: This - (laughter) good, good, yeah. But this inverted yield curve ramped up the anxiety on Wall Street today. I spoke to Joe Brusuelas. He's the chief economist at the consulting firm RSM. And he says a lot rides on the U.S. and China, quickly dialing back these disputes over trade.
JOE BRUSUELAS: Essentially, if the trade war's not rolled back in the near term, I think we're going to have a very difficult 2020.
CHANG: OK, that sounds really unsettling. I guess the question I have after all of this is what do ordinary people like you and me have to worry about going forward?
BERLINER: Well, so for now, the U.S. economy is doing pretty well. Unemployment rate remains really low. Wage growth is decent - very little inflation. But if you're in the markets, if you're an investor for the long term, a one-day drop in the market like this shouldn't really scare you, shouldn't freak you out. But if you're just about to retire and you're looking at your 401(k), these days, understandably, can be really stomach-churning.
CHANG: OK. Well, that's NPR's senior business editor Uri Berliner.
Thank you, Uri.
BERLINER: You're welcome, Ailsa.
(SOUNDBITE OF ÓLAFUR ARNALDS' "EKKI HUGSA")[POST BROADCAST CORRECTION:In a previous version of this story, we said that China's industrial output fell to a 17-year low. In fact, it is the growth in industrial output that fell that low.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.