Stocks Sink as Omicron, Rate Worries Rattle Wall Street

Wall Street’s losses deepened on Tuesday after the head of the Federal Reserve said it will consider shutting off its support for financial markets sooner than expected. The S&P 500 fell 1.9%. It was already down in the morning amid worries that the omicron variant would hit the global economy.Losses accelerated after Fed Chair Jerome Powell told Congress the central bank will consider halting its bond purchases meant to lower long-term rates sooner than expected. Short-term Treasury yields rose as investors moved up expectations for a Fed rate hike.

An end to the purchases would open the door for the Fed to raise short-term interest rates from their record low of nearly zero. That in turn would dilute a major propellant that’s sent stocks to record heights and swatted away concerns about an overly pricey market. As investors moved up their expectations for the Fed’s first rate hike following Powell’s remarks, yields on short-term Treasurys rose.

Losses for stocks accelerated, with the drop for the Dow Jones Industrial Average more than tripling in half an hour. It was down 603 points, or 1.7%, at 34,525, as of 3:22 p.m. Eastern.

The Nasdaq composite was down 1.5%, holding up better than the rest of the market. Higher interest rates tend to hurt stock prices broadly, but they hit hardest on those seen as the most expensive or banking on big profit growth the furthest in the future. Such companies play a bigger role in the Nasdaq than other indexes. Microsoft fell 1.6% and chipmaker Nvidia slid 3.1%.Whammy on Interest Rates

The whammy on interest rates came after stocks were already weak in the morning due to concerns about how badly the fast-spreading omicron variant of the coronavirus may hit the global economy.

The CEO of Moderna predicted in an interview with the Financial Times that existing COVID-19 vaccines may be less effective with omicron than earlier variants. Regeneron also said Tuesday that its monoclonal antibody treatment may have reduced effectiveness on omicron. Shares in Moderna fell 3.9%, while Regeneron dropped 2.1%.

Much is left to be determined about the variant, including how much it may slow already gummed-up supply chains or scare people away from stores. That uncertainty has sent Wall Street through jagged up-and-down jolts as investors struggle to handicap how much economic damage omicron will ultimately do.

“There will be heightened volatility around any piece of information,” said Kristina Hooper, chief global market strategist at Invesco. She said markets will likely remain cautious “before we know more.”

The S&P 500 sank 2.3% Friday for its worst loss for February, only to rise 1.3% Monday as investors reconsidered whether the reaction was overdone, before giving way to Tuesday’s loss. The benchmark index is on pace to close out November with a 0.6% loss.

One measure of nervousness in the stock market jumped almost 19% after nearing its level from Friday, when it touched its highest point since March. Much of the rise occurred after Powell began speaking.

Gold usually does well when fear among investors is rising, but its price slipped 0.5%. Higher interest rates could reduce the appeal of gold, which doesn’t pay its holders any interest.

Crude oil prices slid with concerns that a global economy weakened by omicron would burn less fuel. Benchmark U.S. crude dropped 5.4% and touched its lowest level in three months. Brent crude, the international standard, fell 3.9%.Devil in the Omicron Details

If omicron does ultimately do heavy damage to the global economy, it could put the Federal Reserve in a difficult spot. Usually, the central bank will lower interest rates, which encourages borrowers to spend more and investors to pay higher prices for stocks.

But low rates can also encourage inflation, which is already high across the global economy. Powell acknowledged in his testimony before Congress that inflation has been worse and lasted longer than the Fed expected. For months, officials described inflation as only “transitory,” but Powell said that word no longer works.

The subsequent losses for stocks Tuesday were widespread, with nearly all of the big stocks in the S&P 500 lower.

Smaller stocks fell even more, with the Russell 2000 index down 1.9%. Investors typically see them getting hurt more than their larger rivals by both higher interest rates and by a weaker U.S. economy.

One signal in the bond market was also flashing some concern about the economy’s prospects. Longer-term Treasurys usually offer higher yields than shorter-term Treasurys, in part to make up for the increased risk that future inflation may eat into their returns.

A 10-year Treasury is still offering more in yield than a two-year Treasury, but the gap narrowed sharply on Tuesday. The two-year yield rose to 0.52% from 0.51% late Monday. The 10-year yield, meanwhile, fell to 1.44% from 1.52%.

Many investors see that narrowed gap as meaning the bond market has less confidence in the economy’s long-term strength. If it were to flip, with short-term yields rising above long-term yields, many investors see that as a semi-reliable predictor of a recession.

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