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Fear on the Street: Inside the Stock Sell-Off

Stocks posted a severe drop today, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average falling 4.3% and the Nasdaq crumbling over 5%.

By the end of the day there were few places left to hide. Gold, silver, crude and yields on Treasuries all fell sharply as traders looked for safety and were met by nothing but falling prices. Over the last 10 trading days stocks have lost more than 10%, the traditional definition of a market correction.

Today's selling started in Europe and picked up steam as American investors, already twitchy in the wake of the debt ceiling debacle, suddenly preferred cash over all other assets. The selling began overseas, but we have more than our share of problems in the U.S. as well.

There's a growing realization among even the most optimistic investors that the United States is entering a new recession -- a dreaded "double-dip." Adding to the pain is the sense that the government and Federal Reserve are out of both ideas and ways to stimulate the economy. Corporate America is sitting on record amounts of cash but is refusing to make new investments with so little end demand for its products. Consumers and corporations are hoarding cash, and the economy appears to be seizing. The debt ceiling debate was a fiasco, snuffing any remaining confidence traders had for help from Washington, D.C.

The bottom line is traders are becoming convinced that we're facing a prolonged and severe recession, and there's nothing any government on Earth can do to stop it. In that context, selling stocks or "reducing exposure" as they say on Wall Street, is quite rational.

So what should people at home do? Avoid panic, for starters. The swiftness of this correction is unusual, but a 10% drop is not. Just last summer stocks fell 17% on concerns not unlike those we face today. If you're an investor who can't sleep tonight, you're probably too exposed to stocks. Sell until you can sleep. Nobody ever made good financial decisions scared or tired.

Today was the first sign of fear stocks have seen in a year. To paraphrase Churchill, that may not be the beginning of the end of the selling, but it's the end of the beginning. It's extremely unlikely we're going to see good economic news anytime soon. A terrible jobs number tomorrow is now assumed, and a good one will be considered either incorrect or flat-out fraudulent.

Take hope for a quick economic recovery out of the equation and ask yourself this: If you woke up tomorrow and stocks were set to open down another 1,000 points on the Dow, would you buy or sell? Whatever your answer is, you'd be well served to consider doing it a little bit at a time now.

Trying to "call the bottom" by going all in at once is a fool's game. Be patient, be calm and tune out the panic. In a market this volatile, prudence is the only rational strategy available.