NEW YORK — Wall Street is wobbling Tuesday in its first trading after tumbling into a bear market on worries that high inflation will push central banks to clamp the brakes too hard on the economy.
The S&P 500 was 0.2% lower in midday trading as investors brace for the Federal Reserve’s announcement on Wednesday about what it will do with interest rates. It was an unsteady move, though, and the index swung between an earlier loss of 0.5% and gain of 0.8% after a couple big companies flexed financial strength with stronger profits and payouts to shareholders.
The Dow Jones Industrial Average was down 109 points, or 0.4%, at 30,407, as of 11:09 a.m. Eastern time, and the Nasdaq composite was 0.1% lower after swinging between a gain of 0.9% and a loss of 0.4%.
Trading across markets was calmer, if still tentative, following Monday’s worldwide rout. Stocks across Asia and Europe were mixed, while a measure of nervousness among investors on Wall Street was edging lower.
Cryptocurrencies were mixed. They’ve been among the hardest-hit in this year’s rout for markets as the Federal Reserve and other central banks raise interest rates in order to rein in inflation and forcefully turn off the “easy mode” that helped prop up markets for years. Bitcoin trimmed its loss to less than 1% and was sitting at $22,658, according to CoinDesk. It fell overnight to nearly 70% below its record of $68,990.90 set late last year.
Offering some support to the market was a report that showed inflation at the wholesale level was a touch lower in May than expected, though it remains very high. It could be an indication that wholesale inflation peaked in March, according to Jack Ablin, chief investment officer at Cresset Capital Management.
Economists said the data won’t keep the Federal Reserve from hiking its key interest rate this week by a larger-than-usual amount, with some even speculating the largest increase since 1994 that’s triple the usual move. But the figures weren’t bludgeoning the market like last week’s data on inflation at the consumer level, which showed inflation getting worse, not better as some investors had hoped.
Treasury yields were churning up and down and remain close to their highest levels in more than a decade, reached Monday. They also have a relatively reliable warning signal of recession in the bond market flashing on and off.
In morning trading, the yield on the two-year Treasury had fallen back below the 10-year yield, at 3.36% versus 3.39%. That’s typically how things look in the bond market.
In the unusual circumstances where the two-year yield tops the 10-year yield, some investors see it as a sign that a recession may be hitting in about a year or two. It’s called an “inverted yield curve,” and it’s been flashing on and off intermittenty over the last day.
On Wall Street, Oracle soared 9% after it reported stronger revenue and earnings for its latest quarter than analysts expected. FedEx jumped 12.3% after it boosted its dividend payout by more than 50%.
It was the first trading for U.S. stocks after the S&P 500 closed Monday at 21.8% below its record set early this year. That put it in a bear market, which is what investors call a drop of 20% or more.
At the center of the sell-off is the U.S. Federal Reserve’s effort to control inflation by raising interest rates. The Fed is scrambling to get prices under control and its main method is to raise rates, but that is a blunt tool that could slow the economy too much and cause a recession.
Other central banks worldwide, including the Bank of England, have been raising rates as well, while the European Central Bank said it will do so next month and in September.
The war in Ukraine is sending oil and food prices sharply higher, fueling inflation and sapping consumer spending, especially in Europe. COVID infections in China, meanwhile, have led to some tough, business-slowing restrictions that threaten to restrain the world’s second-largest economy and worsen snarled supply chains.
“The old, pre-corona equilibrium, with low inflation, ultraloose monetary policy and low geopolitical risk premiums no longer holds,” said Andreas Koester, head of portfolio management at Union Investment in Frankfurt, Germany.
“Now we are in a transition to a new, post-corona equilibrium, of which only the outlines are visible, such as higher inflation levels or a return to great power competition on the international scene,” Koester added.
The shift by central banks, especially the Fed, toward higher interest rates has reversed the spectacular rise in stock prices spurred by massive support for markets after the pandemic hit in early 2020. Markets are bracing for more bigger-than-usual hikes, on top of some discouraging signals about the economy and corporate profits, including a record-low preliminary reading on consumer sentiment soured by high gasoline prices.
Higher interest rates typically make investors less willing to pay high prices for risky investments. That’s why some of the biggest stars of the earlier low-rate era have been some of the worst hit in this year’s rout, including bitcoin and high-growth technology stocks like Netflix, which is down more than 70% in 2022.