I've seen panic. I traded through panic in the late 90's, as well as the late and early aughts. Panic isn't a friend of mine but we sometimes see one another at the same parties. This sell-off is not panic. Not yet anyway, but we're getting close.
Until we get a genuine blow off fear-based dumping of stocks at any price, stocks won't find a bottom. The market today is seeing horrendous, painful, gut-wrenching selling, but no real fear. The President spoke with the ostensible goal of easing the market's pain. He showed up late, complained about S&P's downgrade, and then spoke in the third person of problems being caused by Washington. The market sold off nearly another percentage point when he took the dais but no one was particularly outraged. We closed very near the lows of the day but no one was afraid.
As investors, we're mostly just bored, angry, and jaded. This sell-off is being treated like theater. Market crashes happen every five years; all that changes are the catalysts and the cast of characters. If stocks were a movie franchise it wouldn't be Wall Street, with some ham-fisted morality lesson interspersed with a bunch of cool people and sexy toys. Market crashes are now Batman; once we grow tired of the main actors we kick them out and "re-boot" the franchise after a couple years. Michael Keaton... Val Kilmer... George Clooney... Christian Bale. Long Term Capital... Internet Stocks... Housing Bubble... and this sell-off to be titled later (I'm going with "European Meltdown").
Matt Nesto, Aaron Task, and I groped around for some sort of solution and/or sign that this sell-off will come to an end in the near-term. We didn't find any as a group, so let me take a stab at it myself: Dow 10,000, a 10% down day, or July 12, 2012 with the release of Batman: The Dark Knight Rises. Whichever comes first.
If you want a positive omen consider this: the S&P closed down 6.66%, a dark nod to the March '09 bottom of 666. That's the best we have for now.