Stocks sank Friday, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average briefly falling more than 1,000 points as a new coronavirus variant first detected in South Africa appeared to be spreading across the globe.
Friday’s contraction saw share prices fall for most large Washington companies. Pinched hardest was Expedia — the online travel company’s share price fell 9.5% to $159.80. Alaska Airlines fell 6.5% to $49.45 a share, while Boeing dropped 5.4% to $199.21.
Investors were uncertain whether the variant could potentially reverse months of progress at getting the COVID-19 pandemic under control.
“Investors are likely to shoot first and ask questions later until more is known,” Jeffrey Halley of Oanda said in a report.
There have been other variants of the coronavirus — the delta variant devastated much of the U.S. throughout the summer — and investors, public officials and the general public are jittery about any new variant that’s spreading. Cases of the new variant were found in Hong Kong, Belgium and Tel Aviv, Israel, as well as major South African cities like Johannesburg.
The European Union and the U.K. both announced travel restrictions from southern Africa on Friday. After the market closed, the U.S. also put travel restrictions on those coming from South Africa as well as seven other African nations.
Airline stocks quickly sold off, with United Airlines dropping 9.6% and American Airlines falling 8.8%.
“COVID had seemingly been put in the rearview mirror by financial markets until recently,” said Douglas Porter, chief economist at BMO Capital Markets. “At the least, (the virus) is likely to continue throwing sand in the gears of the global economy in 2022, restraining the recovery (and) keeping kinks in the supply chain.”
The S&P 500 index dropped 106.84 points, or 2.3%, to close at 4,594.62. It was the worst day for Wall Street’s benchmark index since February. The Dow fell 905.4 points, 2.5%, to 34,910.47. The Nasdaq Composite lost 353.57 points, or 2.2%, to 15,491.66.
Even Bitcoin got caught up in the selling. The digital currency dropped 8.4% to $54,179, according to CoinDesk.
In Nantucket, Massachusetts, where he is spending a holiday weekend, President Joe Biden said he wasn’t concerned about the market’s decline.
“They always do when there’s something on COVID (that) arises,’’ Biden said.
Fearful of more lockdowns and travel bans, investors moved money into companies that largely benefited from previous waves, like Zoom Communications for meetings or Peloton for at-home exercise equipment. Shares in both companies rose nearly 6%.
The coronavirus vaccine manufacturers were among the biggest beneficiaries of the emergence of this new variant and the subsequent investor reaction. Pfizer shares rose more than 6% while Moderna shares jumped more than 20%.
Investors are worried that the supply chain issues that have impacted global markets for months will worsen. Ports and freight yards are vulnerable and could be shut by new, localized outbreaks.
“Supply chains are already stretched,’’ said Neil Shearing, an economist with Capital Economics in London. “A new, more dangerous, virus wave could cause some workers to temporarily exit the workforce, and deter others from returning, making current labor shortages worse.’’
The price of oil fell about 13%, the biggest decline since early in the pandemic, amid worries of another slowdown in the global economy. That in turn dragged down energy stocks. Exxon shares fell 3.5% while Chevron fell 2.3%.
Stock trading the Friday after Thanksgiving is typically the slowest day of the year, with the market closing at 1 p.m. Eastern. However volume on Friday was much higher than it would typically be for a holiday-shortened day. Roughly 3.4 billion shares exchanged hands on the New York Stock Exchange, which is only modestly below the 4 billion shares traded on an average day.