Fed news sends bond yields sharply lower; U.S. stocks mixed
A screen on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange shows the rate decision of the Federal Reserve, Wednesday, March 20, 2019. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)
Damian J. Troise and Alex Veiga, The Associated Press
Published Wednesday, March 20, 2019 5:23PM EDT
Banks led U.S. stocks mostly lower Wednesday after a brief rally sparked by the Federal Reserve's latest policy update faded. The real action centred in the bond market, where prices rose sharply, pulling Treasury yields down to the lowest levels they've seen in more than a year.
The central bank said it has ruled out interest rate increases this year and issued a dimmer outlook on the U.S. economy.
That triggered one of the biggest slides for Treasury yields in months, knocking the 10-year Treasury yield as low as 2.53 per cent, down from 2.61 per cent late Tuesday and from 3.20 per cent late last year. The two-year Treasury yield, which is more influenced by Fed movements, fell to 2.39 per cent from 2.45 per cent late Tuesday.
Yields have been falling steadily since November, as worries rose about a slowing global economy and traders subsequently made moves in anticipation of a more patient Fed.
The Fed's decision not to raise rates in 2019 is a marked change from three months ago, when the central bank projected two rate hikes in 2019. The move comes as Fed officials project that the U.S. economy will grow more slowly this year and in 2020, a change from the panel's projections just three months ago.
The central bank also said it will stop shrinking its bond portfolio in September, a step that would help hold down long-term interest rates.
The Fed's announcement was clearly positive for the market, said Quincy Krosby, chief market strategist at Prudential Financial.
"Powell's suggestion that the Fed is on hold this year is important," she said. "The question for the market remains whether or not the four rate hikes from last year and the unwinding of the balance sheet at the same time could be continuing, even now, to tighten financial conditions."
The S&P 500 dropped 8.34 points, or 0.3 per cent, to 2,824.23. The Dow Jones Industrial Average fell 141.71 points, or 0.5 per cent, to 25,745.67. The average had been down more than 216 points earlier.
The Nasdaq composite eked out a slight gain, adding 5.02 points, or 0.1 per cent, to 7,728.97. The Russell 2000 index of smaller-company stocks gave up 11.83 points, or 0.8 per cent, to 1,543.16.
Major European indexes finished lower.
It was only last autumn that interest rates were on the rise and rattling investors, who worried that an overly aggressive Fed would keep raising rates and choke off growth in the face of a slowing global economy. The Fed increased rates four times last year and three times in 2017.
Besides encouraging more borrowing and economic growth, lower interest rates can make stocks look more attractive to investors, at least when compared with the lower amount of interest that bonds are paying.
On the losing end, though, are U.S. banks, whose profits can take a hit if the gap between short- and long-term interest rates narrows. Financial stocks in the S&P 500 fell 2.1 per cent for the largest loss among the 11 sectors that make up the index.
KeyCorp slumped 5.3 per cent, while Bank of America lost 3.4 per cent.
Health care, industrial and technology stocks also took heavy losses. Humana dropped 4 per cent, United Rentals fell 3.8 per cent and Oracle shed 2.6 per cent.
Communications and energy sector stocks notched solid gains. Netflix climbed 4.6 per cent, while Noble Energy added 3.6 per cent.
Developments in the trade talks between the U.S. and China helped pull the market lower earlier in the day.
President Donald Trump said if negotiations result in a deal, tariffs could stay in place for some time to ensure Beijing "lives by the deal." Trump added that the White House was discussing keeping tariffs for a "substantial period of time," adding that China has had "problems living by certain deals."
Administration officials are set to visit China for more negotiations late next week. Trump said the talks are "coming along nicely."
Wall Street is hoping for a resolution to the damaging trade war between the world's largest economies, which has made goods more costly for companies and consumers.
Despite Wednesday's downbeat finish, the market is still off to a roaring start to the year. The S&P 500 index is up 12.7 per cent so far in 2019. That's better than the full-year gains for the benchmark index in four of the past five years.
News of tighter supplies of oil and continued production cuts helped to briefly push the price of benchmark U.S. crude oil above $60 a barrel. It hadn't closed above that price since November. It fell back slightly in afternoon trading, finishing with a gain of 1.4 per cent to $59.83 a barrel.
The rise came after the U.S. government reported that supplies of oil fell 9.6 per cent last week and news that OPEC plans on maintaining deep production cuts.
The price of oil has been increasing sharply since Christmas Eve, when it hit a low of just over $42 per barrel. That followed a 44 per cent plunge since October 3, when it hit a high of just over $76 per barrel.
Brent crude gained 1.3 per cent to close at $68.50 a barrel. Wholesale gasoline added 1.2 per cent to $1.92 a gallon, heating oil rose 0.9 per cent to $2.01 a gallon and natural gas fell 1.9 per cent to $2.82 per 1,000 cubic feet.
The dollar fell to 110.61 yen from 111.41 Japanese yen on Tuesday. The euro strengthened to $1.1446 from $1.1352.
Gold dropped 0.4 per cent to $1,301.70 an ounce, silver lost 0.4 per cent to $15.32 an ounce and copper gave up 0.1 per cent to $2.92 a pound.
AP Business Writer Stan Choe contributed to this report.