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After Scare in U.S. Markets, Possible Combination of Causes Investigated

May 6, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
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As police in Greece used teargas to control new protests late Thursday, U.S. markets went into a wild ride for a few hours. Judy Woodruff examines the possible links and other potential causes for the market unrest with a reporter on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange and a reporter at the scene of the protests in Athens.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: For more on today’s events, both in Greece and on the financial markets, we turn now to guests in New York and Athens. In a few minutes, I will talk to John Psaropoulos of TheNewAthenian.com. He also reports for National Public Radio.

But first to Susie Gharib, anchor of the Nightly Business Report here on PBS. She joins us from the New York Stock Exchange.

Susie Gharib, first of all, it’s being reported there was — may have been human error involved in that plunge today. What have you learned about it?

SUSIE GHARIB: Well, it may have been human error, Judy, and it may — that may have been compounded by some electronic trading.

Here’s what we know so far. There were two events. And we don’t know which came first and if they were connected. One thing was that, around 2:30 today, mysteriously, shares of Procter & Gamble and 3M suddenly plunged. And that triggered some electronic trading.

Also today, a trader accidentally placed an order for $16 billion, instead of $16 million, of what’s called E-minis. These are futures contracts that are traded on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. And, as I said, we still don’t know which came first and if they’re connected.

Our sources are telling us that the trader was working for Citi. Citigroup has not confirmed that yet. But that was part of what was going on. You know, I want to say that you just did your Greek report.

Before this freefall, the markets were already pretty nervous, and the Dow was down something like 250 points. And then all of this stuff happened. But, within 20 minutes after the freefall, the Dow was — regained about 600 points.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, is it possible that a combination of events like what you just described could account for the — what, the biggest drop ever in one day?

SUSIE GHARIB: We — there are still a lot of questions that are unanswered, and it’s probably going to take a couple days to figure it all out.

But, right now, from what we’re hearing, it’s a combination of human error and also, you know, some of this electronic trading. This evening, officials from the New York Stock Exchange, as well as the Nasdaq and the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, are getting together to decide and figure out what happened, and to decide whether some of those erroneous trades should be canceled.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Susie, in the last few days, the markets have been dropping, but haven’t there also been some positive reports about the U.S. economy overall?

SUSIE GHARIB: Yes, there have been.

I mean, we have been seeing over the last couple of weeks that the consumer is spending more. Some retail sales — retailers are reporting good numbers. We’re seeing that housing numbers are improving. Factories are busier. And that’s a good thing.

And tomorrow, of course, is going to be a very important, critical day for the markets, because we’re going to be getting the April employment report. And the expectations are for a strong number. We’re hoping to see that American businesses have hired and added to their payrolls something like 200,000 people. And that will be the strongest number that we have seen since this financial crisis began.

So, yes, there are some good fundamentals. A lot of the economists that I talk to say that the U.S. recovery is on track. But we have to remember that this situation in Greece may not be confined to Greece alone. It may be spreading to other European countries.

And there are worries that it could develop into a global credit crisis, which, if that does happen, there will be a spillover effect into the U.S.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, meanwhile, Susie, is there a sense that what happened today — that what happened today says something about the fragility, even the emotionality, of these markets?

SUSIE GHARIB: Absolutely.

I mean, everything in the markets, as they always say, it depends on certainty. And when there’s uncertainty, investors get nervous. And the big uncertain question right now is, is this problem in Greece going to spread to other countries? Is this financial bailout for Greece going to be enough?

And if the Europeans are having problems with this, and you’re seeing those violent protests in Greece, then what happens to the bigger economies in — in Europe that are in trouble, like Portugal and Italy and Spain? Will Europe be able to contain that and handle those financial problems? Will there be a recession in — throughout the Eurozone? And will that recession impact American companies that sell goods and products to the Europeans? And what will that mean for jobs and the economy here in the states?

So, yes, there’s — there are a lot of questions out there. And that uncertainty is making investors very nervous.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Susie Gharib, anchor of the “Nightly Business Report” on PBS, thanks very much.

And now to reporter John Psaropoulos in Athens.

John, we also talked to you yesterday. You were there today watching what has happened throughout the city. How much different from the deadly riots of yesterday?

JOHN PSAROPOULOS, The New Athenian: Well, it was, in short, an anticlimax.

The peaceful part of the rally that took place was only about maybe a couple of thousand people strong, in my estimation. This throng came around Parliament at the time when the austerity measures were being voted. Their banners were up and — and their flags were flying, but there wasn’t the usual drum-beating and the usual amplified music and the slogan-shouting that attends these rallies.

It was low-key. It was sober. It was chastened after the deaths yesterday of three people, one of whom, it turns out, was four months pregnant. So, people here are counting it as four deaths. The violent skirmishes that took place with police later on separately in streets around the Parliament square were — were vastly reduced in scale and in intensity from — from yesterday.

So, again, while there is a hard-core anarchist group that is bent on wreaking destruction with every given opportunity, with every rally that takes place, the — the scale is still reduced.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Was there a display of remorse in any way today, John?

JOHN PSAROPOULOS: I think very much so.

Every major national newspaper had the deaths on the front page. It was the only story on the front page. It — people were in a state of shock. People went to work in some sort of — with some sort of daze. All threw through the morning, people I talked to were telling me that — that they couldn’t believe that something could have got out of hand so badly.

It’s been very negatively commented on in all the media. Even an anarchist that I was talking to earlier this evening outside Parliament, who was handing out flyers, when I asked him what he thought of the results of anarchists’ actions, said that it was a tragedy, he was very sorry, that he, too, mourned for the victims, but, at the end of the day, they were the victims of a social war that has now irrevocably been waged and that will not subside, because he and people who think like him feel that Greece is the flash point for a spontaneous global uprising of anarchy at the moment.

So, the people who actually torched the bank are not going to see the human cost as comparable to the political stakes. The people, who are the vast majority, who were peacefully marching are the ones who are most troubled by it. And — and they feel that it sort of adds to their frustration.

I’m talking about middle-class employees, private and public sector workers, union members, members of the Communist Party, those who make up the vast majority of these strikes and marches.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Meantime, John, we know that the Greek Parliament today went along with the prime minister’s request, approved drastic cuts in spending and so forth. What — how did that debate go?

JOHN PSAROPOULOS: Well, the debate was acrimonious.

At one point, the prime minister even lashed out, because he was accused of having poor Greek, which is a sort of standard mockery of our prime minister, because he is, by — by upbringing, American. And — and perhaps his grasp of colloquial Greek isn’t as good as that of some other politicians.

But the — the Parliament didn’t go along with the government’s austerity package. The government voted that through on its own because it has a majority of parliamentary seats. But the conservative opposition said, we will not oppose, but we will not support. And the Communist Party and the Left Coalition, which is a breakaway Communist Party, are simply at war with the government, and they are determined to prevent political and social consensus.

Therefore, the government is completely isolated on its reform process and its austerity process. And this is the third package they have now put through Parliament on their own. So, I don’t see this as — as holding out great hope for further political consensus down the road, because, as far as politicians and people on the street are concerned, we are going to see more austerity requests from the government in the months to come. Therefore, the rift is going to grow wider.

JUDY WOODRUFF: John Psaropoulos, reporting for us from Athens, thank you very much.

JOHN PSAROPOULOS: Thank you.