U.S. Stocks Slide the Most Since Brexit Amid Rate Speculation

  • Boston Fed’s Rosengren warns of waiting too long on rate hike
  • Selloff breaks two months of narrow moves for S&P 500

Are U.S. Stocks Still at the Mercy of the Fed?

U.S. stocks fell in the worst selloff since Britain voted to leave the European Union, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average falling almost 400 points after a Federal Reserve official signaled more willingness to raise interest rates.

Equities were jolted out of an eight-week stretch of calm as central bankers weigh the benefits of further stimulus efforts. Boston Fed President Eric Rosengren warned today that waiting too long to raise rates threatened to overheat the U.S. economy and could risk financial stability. Shares slipped from near-record levels Thursday after European Central Bank President Mario Draghi downplayed the need for more stimulus measures.

The S&P 500 Index fell 2.5 percent to 2,127.81 at 4 p.m. in New York, marking a two-month low and its biggest weekly drop since February. The gauge sank below its average price during the past 50 days for the first time since July 6. The Dow lost 394.46 points, or 2.1 percent, to 18,085.45, while the Nasdaq Composite Index declined 2.5 percent. The CBOE Volatility Index surged the most since the Brexit vote, up 40 percent, to a two-month high.

“Dovish Fed members getting called up to bat for a hike is putting people on edge,” Yousef Abbasi, a global market strategist at JonesTrading Institutional Services LLC, said by phone. “It’s certainly one of those days where people are positioning for that September hike being back on the table. It’s happening as economic data lately is coming in more softly than people would like.”

Shares of phone companies, which flourished this year along with utilities as yield-starved investors flocked to their high dividends, marked their steepest loss since February 2014. Utilities dropped the most in 19 months. Two other 2016 leaders -- energy and raw-material producers -- slumped more than 2.8 percent, while consumer-staples had the worst day in a year. Banks and insurers were less hard-hit, buffered by speculation higher rates will lift profits, though the financial group still lost 1.9 percent.

Among the biggest drags on the benchmark, AT&T Inc. saw its worst drop in more than two years, while Apple Inc., Amazon.com Inc. and Exxon Mobil Corp. each sank at least 2.2 percent. Now 2.9 percent from its all-time high, the S&P 500 trades at 18.1 times forecast earnings, still the highest since 2009. About 8.4 billion shares traded hands on U.S. exchanges Friday, 24 percent above the three-month average.

“Boring utilities and other defense trades started behaving like Apple in the glory days or hot biotech stocks, and it attracted momentum players, so that’s another factor embedded in this,” Michael Purves, chief global strategist at Weeden & CO LP in Greenwich, Connecticut, said by phone. “Today what we’re having is an unwind of the 10-year that’s been so key to that support -- the equity move today has been more about the 10-year.”

Following Rosengren’s comments, traders briefly pushed bets for a rate increase this month to 38 percent, before moderating to 30 percent. Odds fell to 22 percent on Wednesday following a string of weaker-than-forecast gauges on hiring, manufacturing and services activity. December is the first month with at least an even chance for a move. Next week’s reports on retail sales, consumer sentiment and industrial production are among the last major economic releases before the central bank meets Sept. 20-21.

Fed Governor Lael Brainard, seen as a leading opponent of rate increases for much of the past year, is scheduled to deliver a speech in Chicago Monday outlining her views on the economy and monetary policy. The yield on the 10-year U.S. Treasury note rose Friday to a more than two-month high.

“This is a big move in yields the last couple days,” Mark Kepner, managing director and equity trader at Themis Trading LLC in Chatham, New Jersey, said by phone. “If you’re going to get a big move in the bond market, equities can only be under pressure and we’re seeing it already. Investors do not like a move like this so fast.”

The S&P 500 capped its first move of at least 1 percent after 43 sessions, the longest such streak since 2014, as it broke below a roughly 30-point range it’s held for about two months. The gauge had hovered near a record reached on Aug. 15 amid mixed economic data and speculation about the Fed’s stance on rates. Before today’s selloff, the index was up 19 percent from a 22-month low in February, and less than half a percent from its all-time high.

“It’s really difficult to be an investor in U.S. equities right now because benchmarks are just glued to those all-time highs,” said Steven Santos, a broker at Banco de Investimento Global SA in Lisbon. “There isn’t much conviction to really push stocks higher, but you also don’t want to completely give up on stocks when returns elsewhere look miserable.”

Adding to the angst over the prospects for higher borrowing costs, DoubleLine Capital Chief Investment Officer Jeffrey Gundlach said it’s time to prepare for rising rates and inflation. “This is a big, big moment,” Gundlach said during a webcast Thursday. “Interest rates have bottomed. They may not rise in the near term as I’ve talked about for years. But I think it’s the beginning of something and you’re supposed to be defensive.”

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