U.S. stocks took a round trip deep into negative territory Wednesday before finishing on an upward trajectory, as investors grimly absorbed a spate of overseas interest rate cuts.
Central banks in India, Thailand and New Zealand announced greater-than-expected rate cuts Wednesday, following signals from the European Central Bank and the Federal Reserve toward monetary easing as policymakers around the globe try to mitigate the fallout from the U.S.-China trade war that threatens to stall global growth.
The Dow Jones industrial average nose-dived 589 points after the Asian Pacific central banks announced their rate cuts but dug itself out as the day wore on and nearly broke even. It closed down 22 points, 0.09 percent, at 26,007. Walt Disney Co., JPMorgan Chase and IBM were the blue chip’s biggest drags.
The Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index hit a two-month low before an afternoon surge pared its losses and left the broad index up 2 points, about even on the day. The tech-heavy Nasdaq Composite spent the morning in the red before climbing back to a 30-point gain, or 0.4 percent.
All 11 stock market sectors went negative in morning trading. Six sectors remained in the red at the close, with financial services, energy and telecommunications the biggest losers. Oil prices sank to new lows on global oversupply and fears that an economic slowdown would curtail consumption.
“The petroleum complex keeps taking the worsening U.S.-China trade row hard,” said John Kilduff of Again Capital. “Demand growth estimates keep getting ratcheted down as the Asian economic region slows. Today’s weekly inventory report also hit the market, due to a surprise rise in crude oil inventories in the U.S. last week."
The market volatility accompanied worries about the downturn in the closely watched 10-year Treasury yield, which has fallen to its lowest level since October 2016 as investors flee to safe harbors like bonds and gold to dodge volatility from the trade war.
The yield on the 10-year Treasury, which drops as the bond price increases, fell under 1.60 percent and sent shivers through markets. The yield on the 10-year climbed back to 1.72 percent, easing concerns of an economic calamity.
“Markets misinterpreted the fall in interest rates today as being some sign of an impending financial crisis,” said Jamie Cox, managing partner of Harris Financial Group. “In reality, it was foreign investors reallocating capital to U.S. bonds where they can earn real interest."
The Reserve Bank of New Zealand shocked the market when it lowered rates by 0.5 percentage point. The cut could set the tone for other central banks to go with similar large easing moves. Bond experts said a worldwide downdraft in interest rates could fuel fears of a currency war. The Australian dollar slumped in the wake of New Zealand’s rate cut.
“The recent further narrowing of the 10-year versus two-year yield curve possibly reflects the increasing likeliness of a 50-basis-point cut to the Fed funds rate in September, due to rising trade tensions and weakening (earnings per share) growth expectations,” said Sam Stovall of CFRA Research.
It’s been a brutal stretch for stocks, at a time of year that is notoriously tough on markets. Last week, after his chief trade negotiators returned from China, President Trump shocked the world by announcing tariffs on $300 billion in Chinese imports, starting at 10 percent, effective Sept. 1. Investors recoiled as the trade conflict that has been a drag on the world’s two largest economies for more than a year moved even further from resolution, spurring the sell-off that gave Wall Street its worst week of the year.
The carnage continued Monday after China struck back by allowing its currency to weaken, which officials from Beijing’s central bank characterized as a direct response to “unilateralism, trade protectionism” and the latest round of impending tariffs. U.S. markets retreated, chalking up their worst day of the year, and Trump and the Treasury Department labeled Beijing a “currency manipulator.”
Investors have been fleeing to bonds in droves despite the measly returns. “What you have is a flight to quality,” said Dan Ivascyn, Pimco’s chief investment officer. “You have two of the world’s biggest economies ratcheting up their rhetoric around trade, and that’s making markets nervous.”
Ivascyn said investors simply want to hold onto what they have. They “are becoming much more focused on preserving their principal than the yield that they earn on that investment, even accepting low or negative yields to preserve it.”
Allowing the yuan to depreciate makes Chinese goods cheaper for U.S. consumers, and American goods more costly in China. The move caused pandemonium, pushing the Dow industrials to a 760-point drop, and the tech-heavy Nasdaq, which houses many companies with high exposure to China, into one of its worst-ever sessions. But investors found some reassurance after Chinese officials signaled that they would not allow the yuan to bottom out.
Corporate earnings painted a grim picture, too, as the Walt Disney Co., an entertainment powerhouse, reported weaker-than-expected earnings thanks to streaming service losses and falling theme park attendance. The company’s shares dropped nearly 5 percent, or $7.01, to close at $134.86.