Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke's words carried a great deal of weight in the commodity markets — so much so that they squashed the prices of gold and silver.
Bernanke told Congress that the U.S. economy was probably headed for modest growth this year, adding that the current increase in oil and gas prices probably would reverse before sparking long-term inflation.
The presentation Wednesday signaled to many investors that the Fed's embarking on another round of quantitative easing was an increasingly improbable scenario. The bond-buying practice serves as a stimulus measure, leading to what investors often call "easy" or "loose" money.
Spot gold, which usually benefits from such policies, tanked in response, plummeting $77.10, or 4.3%, to $1,709.90 an ounce. Silver for March delivery took a similar tumble, sliding almost $2.56, or nearly 6.9%, to $34.58 an ounce.
"When Bernanke didn't mention the possibility of another round of monetization, that was enough to take the fizz out of everything," said independent commodities analyst Dennis Gartman. "Before today, gold was looking quite strong, but today it just gave up the ghost."
The sell-off was probably helped along by the precious metal's failure in recent weeks to breach the symbolic $1,800-an-ounce threshold, said James Steel, a commodities analyst for HSBC. The emerging market for the safe haven has also been quiet. "There's usually a bit of a floor under the market, but there wasn't this time," he said.
Still, gold has risen overall this year after its 11th straight year of gains last year. Although analysts expect lingering weakness over the next few days, some doubt that gold's plunge will outlast Wednesday.
Investors also yanked money out of the stock market, pushing the Dow Jones industrial average down 0.4% just one day after the blue chips closed above 13,000 for the first time since the financial crisis. The index closed Wednesday down 53.05 points at 12,952.07.
Meanwhile, the tech-heavy Nasdaq composite fell 19.87 points, or 0.67%, to 2,966.89. The index earlier in the session pushed past 3,000 for the first time since the tech boom in 2000. Meanwhile, the broader Standard & Poor's 500 index closed down 6.50 points, or 0.47%, at 1,365.68.
Despite the drops, all three stock measures have increased sharply for the year. Stocks also had their best February since 1998.