Stocks open lower but are still headed for big monthly gains

NEW YORK — U.S. stocks are easing back from their record levels today, and Wall Street appears to be putting a quiet coda on one of its most rocking months in decades.

The S&P 500 was 0.3% lower in early trading. It’s still on track for a 10.9% surge this month, which would be its second-best performance since late 1991. The only month better was earlier this year, in April, when the S&P 500 rebounded 12.7% from its coronavirus-caused plunge after the Federal Reserve and Congress delivered huge rescue programs for the economy.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average was down 232 points, or 0.8%, at 29,678, as of 8:56 a.m. Central time, and the Nasdaq composite was 0.1% lower. Both are also close to their record levels, and the Dow crested the 30,000 level last week for the first time.

Several big forces are behind the big surge, beginning with the clearing of some of the uncertainty that had dogged markets leading into this month’s U.S. elections. Now, Democrat Joe Biden is firmly in place as the president-elect in Wall Street’s eyes, and investors have avoided their worst-case scenario of weeks or months of limbo with an unknown winner.

Investors also found encouragement in prospects that Washington will remain under divided political control. Republicans are on track to hold onto control of the Senate if they can win one of two upcoming runoff elections in Georgia. A split government would mean low tax rates and other pro-business policies could remain the status quo.

But the turbocharger for the market’s move higher has been a huge dose of hope as pharmaceutical companies come closer to delivering vaccines to a world beaten down by the COVID-19 pandemic. Several have reported encouraging data recently suggesting their vaccine candidates are highly effective.

“Vaccines offer the promise that the major disruptions of the pandemic will fade from the scene in 2021,” said Stephen Innes, chief global market strategist at Axi. “Economic life will gradually heal; the world will start to move on from all the human suffering that the virus has wrought.”

Moderna said it would ask U.S. and European regulators today to allow emergency use of its COVID-19 vaccine. Its shares jumped 15.8%

Moderna follows Pfizer and German partner BioNTech in seeking to begin vaccinations in the U.S. in December. British regulators also are assessing the Pfizer shot and another from AstraZeneca.

All that hope has investors looking past the bleak present, with coronavirus counts and hospitalizations launching higher across the United States, Europe and elsewhere. The worsening pandemic is forcing governments to bring back varying degrees of restrictions on businesses, and the worry is it will keep customers hunkered at home regardless of what kind of stay-at-home orders arrive. Experts are warning of a potentially brutal winter.

Instead, investors are focusing on a global economy that next year could get closer to normal after vaccines roll out widely.

That’s helped the stock market’s rally broaden out. Early in Wall Street’s recovery this spring, it was Big Tech that carried the market higher on expectations that work-from-home and other trends would mean bigger profits for them.

But hopes for a more widespread economic recovery are now boosting stocks of companies whose profits are more closely tied to the economy’s strength.

Energy stocks in the S&P 500 are on pace for a nearly 32% surge this month, nearly triple the broader index’s gain. It’s a sharp turnaround from earlier this year, when oil prices plunged as the pandemic kept airplanes, trucks and factories around the world idled or slowed. Occidental Petroleum has surged nearly 80% this month, though it’s still down by about 60% for 2020.

Financial stocks have also been big winners on expectations that a stronger economy will create a stronger job market and higher interest rates. That could mean more people paying back loans made at more profitable rates for banks. Citigroup has leaped about 36% this month, though it remains down nearly 30% for the year so far.

The smaller stocks in the Russell 2000 index are on track for a nearly 20% surge this month.

In European stock markets, Germany’s DAX returned 0.6%, but other markets were weaker. France’s CAC 40 fell 0.1%, and the FTSE 100 in London dropped 0.4%.

In Asia, Japan’s Nikkei 225 0.8%. After trading ended, Koichiro Miyahara, the head of the Tokyo Stock Exchange, resigned to take responsibility for a massive system glitch that shut down trading last month. The full-day outage on Oct. 1 was the worst ever for the world’s third-largest exchange.

South Korea’s Kospi fell 1.6%, Hong Kong’s Hang Seng lost 2.1% and stocks in Shanghai slipped 0.5%.

While the U.S. and Europe remained hobbled by high rates of infections, China’s economy is growing after it managed to rein in the pandemic. A report showed that growth in its manufacturing sector accelerated in November.

The yield on the 10-year Treasury ticked up to 0.84% from 0.83% late Friday.