The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Dow sweeps downward again, with no sign of Santa rally

Three major indices slid more than two percent Dec.17 on concerns about slowing economic growth ahead of anticipated Federal Reserve rate hike this week. (Video: Reuters)

U.S. stock markets again swept downward on Monday as criticism about the Federal Reserve’s pace of interest rate increases has kicked up a fresh round of year-end volatility.

The Dow Jones industrial average closed down 507 points, or 2.1 percent, at 23,592, extending a slide after a 496-point loss on Friday. The blue-chip barometer is notching its worst month in more than three years.

The Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index and the tech-laden Nasdaq composite also dropped 2.1 and 2.3 percent, respectively.

The Dow and S&P 500 are now down about 5 percent for 2018. The Nasdaq is down about 2.45 percent. All three indexes are in correction mode. A correction is a 10 percent retreat from recent peaks.

Days after the U.S. and China announced a new trade agreement, President Trump's administration is struggling to explain what exactly is in it. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post)

The usual havens, where investors go when the market plunges, were hit the hardest as real estate, consumer staples and the utility sector fell. Energy was hit, and health-care stocks took losses on a federal judge’s ruling Friday night that the Affordable Care Act is unconstitutional. Banks were also in the red on Monday.

This stretch historically has been a happy time for shareholders. It is dubbed the Santa Claus rally, as traders finish out one year and reach for optimism to start the next.

For the past five decades, the final week of the year and the first couple of trading sessions in January have registered more than 1 percent gains.

Markets generally languish for a couple of weeks after Thanksgiving as traders sell investments and losers in preparation for tax season. Toward the end of December, some stocks may be on sale, causing investors to scoop them up and push indexes higher.

Ed Yardeni, president of Yardeni Research, said there is still time for a late December Santa Claus rally.

“If [Fed Chairman Jerome] Powell puts on a Santa suit on Wednesday and tries to calm everybody down, we could have a rally,” Yardeni said. “He precipitated this sell-off in early October when he said we were a long way from the ‘neutral’ federal funds rate. Now he needs to calm everybody down and say we’re going to stop for a while and see how the economy absorbs it all. It wouldn’t be hard to have a rally, given how far we have gone down since late September.”

The market is in the throes of a slow-growth narrative that is taking over sentiment. Stocks will need to bump higher in these final two weeks of the year to finish in the black.

Investors are factoring in this week’s anticipated quarter-point interest rate increase by the Fed, the ongoing U.S.-Chinese trade dispute, low oil prices, a possible U.S. government shutdown and the turmoil surrounding Britain’s exit from the European Union.

Trump administration economic adviser Peter Navarro said on CNBC on Monday that the Fed is the source of volatility and the stock slide.

“The economy is growing without inflation,” said Navarro, calling on the Fed not to raise interest rates.

Wall Street figures are criticizing the Fed and urging the central bank to hold the line on rates.

“I think they shouldn’t raise them this week,” Jeffrey Gundlach said in an interview on CNBC. Gundlach, chief investment officer of DoubleLine Capital, said “the bond market is basically saying, ‘Fed, you’ve got no way you should be raising interest rates.’ ”

Billionaire investor Stanley Druckenmiller co-authored an opinion piece with former Federal Reserve Board member Kevin Warsh in the Wall Street Journal over the weekend in which the authors argued against the Fed raising rates.

The U.S. economy “can ill afford a major policy error, either from the Fed or the rest of the administration,” said the authors. “Given recent economic and market developments, the Fed should cease — for now — its double-barreled blitz of higher interest rates and tighter liquidity.”

The grim mood has seeped into the oil markets. Oil prices were rocked Monday, with benchmark West Texas Intermediate down nearly 4 percent, resting below the critical $50-per-barrel threshold. Brent Crude was down 2.3 percent to $58 and change. The $50 mark is crucial because oil producers find the path to profits more of a slog at sub-$50 prices.

Analyst Phil Flynn of the Price Futures Group said oil prices dropped on a private forecast report over the weekend that showed oil inventories building up. That and the stock market crush are shaking confidence in global growth and future demand for oil.

“All the unanswered questions — the stock market being weaker, the Fed meeting on Wednesday, a possible government shutdown — are adding to the bearish momentum and the negative mood,” Flynn said. “The concern is that all that negativity could shake the confidence of business leaders, and it then becomes self-fulfilling.”

As for a Santa rally, well, at least one investor wants more.

“Year-end trading can be slow, as window-dressing can easily take over trades,” said Howard Silverblatt of S&P Dow Jones Indices. “At this point the best gift Saint Nick can give us is a stable market. Gains would be a nice extra, but less volatility would help support confidence in the market, and permit longer-term investment decisions — by investors and corporate planners.”