At least for a day, reality triumphed over hope on Wall Street.
After a frenzied, almost unstoppable three-month climb that seemed to defy both gravity and logic, the stock market plunged Thursday as investors decided they could no longer go on behaving as if the American economy had already recovered from the pandemic.
The signals leading to that moment were hard to ignore, even for the most bullish of investors. Coronavirus infections are rising in 21 states. Congress is divided on extending more aid. And on Wednesday, the Federal Reserve chairman, Jerome Powell, warned that the depth of the downturn and pace of the recovery remained “extraordinarily uncertain.”
For investors, who often make buying and selling decisions by looking at the future, it was altogether too much.
Stocks suffered their worst drop in nearly three months as the S&P 500 stock index fell 5.9% — just days after it had recouped its losses for the year. The Dow Jones industrial average dropped nearly 1,900 points, or 6.9%. Oil prices also cratered, reflecting the sudden unease that swept across financial markets.
“Chairman Powell threw a bucket of cold water on the thought that the economy is going to go back to where it was in 2019 any time soon,” said Matt Maley, chief market strategist at Miller Tabak, an asset management firm. He added that the market was “ripe for a pullback anyway.”
The rally that hit a pothole Thursday began in late March after the Fed signaled that it would create as much new money as needed to steady cratering financial markets, and the federal government provided an economic rescue package worth trillions of dollars. The twin actions reassured investors that the government would not let the bottom fall out of the market, giving them the confidence to begin buying stocks again.
Even as tens of millions of Americans applied for unemployment benefits and the national unemployment rate spiked to its highest level since the Great Depression, the S&P 500 rallied by nearly 45%. It was the fastest recovery off a market low for the benchmark index since 1933.
In recent weeks, investors couldn’t stop buying the stocks of companies beaten down by the virus, betting that they would rebound quickly as states reopened. But early data from some states that have eased quarantine restrictions, such as Texas and Arizona, have been worrisome. There has been a resurgence of the virus in those states, even as cases in the U.S. topped 2 million. On Wednesday, Texas set a record for hospitalizations — which have increased 42% in the state since Memorial Day — for the third consecutive day.
“The idea that COVID is fully behind us, or that a V-shaped recovery is in front of us, were put on hold today,” said Steve Sosnick, chief strategist at Interactive Brokers in Greenwich, Connecticut.
Even if the rise in cases doesn’t lead to another large-scale lockdown, analysts say it does dash hopes for a return to a more normal environment over the summer and makes a full rebound in particularly exposed industries less likely. And that dragged down some stocks Thursday.
“Travel and leisure — call it the epicenter stocks — are the ones getting hit the most,” said King Lip, chief strategist at Baker Avenue, a wealth management firm in San Francisco. Cruise lines Norwegian and Carnival were down 16.5% and 15.3% on Thursday, while United and American Airlines both tumbled roughly 16%. Boeing plunged 16.4%.
Stocks of smaller companies also plummeted Thursday, with the Russell 2000 index of such companies dropping 7.6%. The prospect of another economic slump also hit petroleum prices, with benchmark American crude oil slipping more than 8%. The energy sector was the worst-performing part of the stock market, falling 9.5%. Natural gas pipeline company Oneok and oil and gas producer Occidental were both down about 16%.
Some of the companies had recently pulled in opportunistic traders hoping to ride the wave, analysts said. But Thursday, the high-volume sell-off in their shares suggested those speculators were dumping their holdings.
The market may well rebound, as markets tend to do. But analysts see bumps ahead, especially around the passing of another stimulus bill. With the presidential elections just months away, partisan dynamics make it less likely that Congress will be able to approve another large rescue package.
Some on Wall Street even think that the performance of the stock market would have to be much worse than Thursday’s drop — and the economic conditions far more dire — for policymakers like President Donald Trump, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Mitch McConnell to unite and act.
“Thinking Pelosi and McConnell and Trump are all going to come together, it will only happen if the news is really, really bad,” said Michael Purves, chief executive officer at Tallbacken Capital Advisors, a financial market research firm.