U.S. stocks slumped on Wednesday as Treasury yields climbed following better-than-expected December retail sales. The data signals ongoing economic strength, prompting investors to temper hopes for an imminent Fed rate cut.
The S&P 500 dropped 0.47% to an over one-week low of 4,743, while the Dow shed 0.01% to hit a near one-month low of 37,357. The tech-heavy Nasdaq fared worst, sinking 0.79% to 14,826, its lowest level in a week.
Driving the declines was a surge in the 10-year Treasury yield, which topped 4.1% today – its highest point so far in 2024. The benchmark yield has been rising steadily this year as the Fed maintains its hawkish tone. Higher yields particularly pressured rate-sensitive sectors like real estate, which fell 1.8% for its worst day in a month.
The catalyst behind rising yields was stronger-than-forecast December retail sales. Despite lingering inflation, sales rose 1.4% versus estimates of just 0.1%, buoyed by holiday discounts and robust auto demand. The robust spending highlights the continued resilience of the U.S. economy amidst Fed tightening.
This data substantially dampened investor hopes of the Fed cutting rates as soon as March. Before the report, markets were pricing in a 55% chance of a 25 basis point cut next month. But expectations sank to just 40% after the upbeat sales print.
Traders have been betting aggressively on rate cuts starting in Q2 2024, while the Fed has consistently pushed back on an imminent policy pivot. Chair Jerome Powell stated bluntly last week that “the time for moderating rate hikes may come as soon as the next meeting or meetings.”
“The market is recalibrating its expectations for rate cuts, but I don’t think that adjustment is completely over,” said Annex Wealth Management’s Brian Jacobsen. “A tug-of-war is playing out between what the Fed intends and what markets want.”
Further weighing on sentiment, the CBOE Volatility Index spiked to its highest level in over two months, reflecting anxiety around the Fed’s path. More Fedspeak is due this week from several officials and the release of the Beige Book economic snapshot. These could reinforce the Fed’s resolute inflation fight and keep downward pressure on stocks.
In company news, Tesla shares dropped 2.8% after the electric vehicle leader slashed Model Y prices in Germany by roughly 15%. This follows discounts in China last week as signs of softening demand grow. The price cuts hit Tesla’s stock as profit margins may come under pressure.
Major banks also dragged on markets after Morgan Stanley plunged 2% following earnings. The investment bank flagged weak trading activity and deal-making. Peer banks like Citi, Bank of America and Wells Fargo slid as a result.
On the upside, Boeing notched a 1.4% gain as it cleared a key milestone regarding 737 MAX inspections. This allows the aircraft to reenter service soon, providing a boost to the embattled plane maker.
But market breadth overall skewed firmly negative, with decliners swamping advancers by a 3-to-1 ratio on the NYSE. All 11 S&P 500 sectors finished in the red, underscoring the broad risk-off sentiment.
With the Fed hitting the brakes on easy money, 2024 is shaping up to be a far cry from the bull market of 2021-2022. Bouts of volatility are likely as policy settles into a restrictive posture. For investors, focusing on quality companies with pricing power and adjusting rate hike expectations continue to be prudent moves this year.