Stocks slide as investors fret about inflation

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Stocks faltered on Thursday as investors await a key government report on the pace of U.S. inflation in May.

The S&P 500 fell 98 points, or 2.4%, to close at 4,018, putting it on track for its ninth losing week in the last 10. The Dow Jones Industrial Average tumbled 638 points, or 1.9%, in the blue-chip index’s worst day since May 18. The tech-heavy Nasdaq composite lost 2.7%.

Wall Street could be set for bigger swings on Friday after the Department of Labor releases its latest reading on the Consumer Price Index. Economists expect it to show inflation slowed a touch to 8.2% in May from 8.3% a month earlier and 8.5% in March. 

Financial market losses were even sharper across the Atlantic after the European Central Bank said it would raise interest rates next month for the first time in more than a decade. Another hike is set for September, possibly by double July’s increase, and the central bank will halt its bond-buying program next month.

It all marks a “sea change” in policy for the European Central Bank, according to Marilyn Watson, head of global fundamental fixed income strategy at BlackRock.

Fed also hitting the brakes

It’s part of a growing global tide where central banks are removing ultra-low interest rates that goose borrowing, economic growth and stock prices. Instead, they’ve swung their focus toward raising interest rates and making other moves to slow growth in order to knock down high inflation.

The risk is that such moves could cause a recession if they’re too aggressive. Even if central banks can pull off the delicate balancing act and avoid a recession, higher interest rates put downward pressure on stocks and all kinds of investments regardless.

The wide expectation is that the Fed will raise its key interest rate next week by half of a percentage point, the second straight increase of double the usual amount. Investors expect a third to hit in July.

“We still think a drop back in inflation will allow officials to ease the pace of tightening later this year, but the recent strength of the activity and inflation data suggest the chances of another 50bp hike in September have risen,” Andrew Hunter, senior U.S. economist with Capital Economics, said in a report.


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European stocks sank immediately after the European Central Bank’s announcement, which came before U.S. markets opened. French stocks were down only slightly before the announcement, but the CAC 40 index fell to a 1.4% loss afterward. Germany’s DAX lost 1.7%.

In the U.S., Treasury yields rose following the move from Amsterdam, though they wobbled a bit after that. The 10-year Treasury yield got as high as 3.09% before paring back to 3.03%, up from 3.02% late Wednesday.

A report showed that slightly more U.S. workers filed for unemployment last week than economists expected. That’s a potentially negative signal, but the overall number still remains low compared with history. Economists also said seasonal factors may have affected the most recent numbers, overstating some things due to the Memorial Day holiday.

Has inflation peaked?

Record-high gasoline prices have been putting a tighter squeeze on both consumers and households, upping the pressure on budgets. Crude oil prices were down about half a percent on Thursday, but they remain up by roughly 60% for the year. Much of the jump is due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Lockdowns in major Chinese cities because of COVID-19 have added more pressure to global supply chains, though some of the impact could be easing. China reported its exports surged 17% over a year earlier in May, up from April’s 3.7% growth, as coronavirus precautions were eased in Shanghai and other cities.

Investors have been searching for signs that inflation may have already passed its peak, which would be good for markets because it could mean a less aggressive Fed. Speculation has been rising and falling that the Fed could take a pause on rate hikes at its September meeting, swaying with every data point on the economy.

Many investors are bracing for big swings to continue for a while given the deep uncertainties about where inflation and the Fed’s policies are heading. Stocks have been clawing back since hitting a bottom in the middle of last month, but the S&P 500 remains down nearly 16% this year. 

“Even if the market bottomed in May, we will see another sell-off at some point,” Nancy Tengler, CEO of Laffer Tengler Investments, wrote in a research note, “and some of us will feel worse than we thought we could because we thought it was over.”

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