Stocks slip as Wall Street takes a breather after 4-day run

A man walks past a bank's electronic board showing the Hong Kong share index at Hong Kong Stock Exchange. Stocks are slipping today as trading cools on Wall Street and in markets around the world following their strong record-setting runs. PHOTO CREDIT: Vincent Yu

NEW YORK — Stocks are slipping today as trading cools on Wall Street and in markets around the world following their strong record-setting runs.

The S&P 500 was 0.5% lower in morning trading and on pace to take a breather from a four-day winning streak that carried it to more all-time highs. The Dow Jones Industrial Average was down 132 points, or 0.4%, at 30,965, as of 9:22 a.m. Central time, and the Nasdaq composite was 0.8% lower.

Analysts said a pullback was no surprise following the big rally recently for everything from stocks to bond yields to commodities amid a wave of optimism. With Democrats set to take control of Washington, investors expect Congress to try soon to deliver more stimulus to the economy through larger cash payments for Americans and other programs. That’s building on top of enthusiasm already built about a powerful economic recovery coming later this year as COVID-19 vaccines roll out.

The big rally means stocks and other investments are even more expensive, leaving critics to say they’ve gone too high. One of the main ways professional investors gauge a stock’s value is by measuring its price against how much profit it made in the prior 12 months. Stocks in the S&P 500 are trading at roughly 29 times their earnings. That’s a much more expensive price tag than their average over the last decade of a little below 18, according to FactSet.

At the same time, the worsening pandemic continues to slam the economy. U.S. employers cut more jobs last month than they added, for example, the first month of job losses since last spring. New, potentially more contagious strains of the coronavirus are helping the pandemic to tighten its grip on the economy around the world.

In the background, political uncertainty also continues to hang over markets. Democrats are pushing for the removal of President Donald Trump, who has less than two weeks left in his term, after his words helped incite a group of loyalists to storm the Capitol last week.

Shares of Twitter sank 6% for the largest loss in the S&P 500 after it banned Trump from his account and his 89 million followers. Twitter cited “the risk of further incitement of violence,” but the move has drawn a lot of anger from conservatives who may abandon the service and ask for more regulatory scrutiny of the company. Facebook fell 2.7% after it suspended Trump’s accounts.

Other areas of the market were also losing momentum, but not by as much as social media stocks and Big Tech. Stocks of smaller companies slipped, for example, with the Russell 2000 index down 0.3%. But it remains 5.6% higher for 2021 so far, more than quadruple the gain of the big stocks in the S&P 500. Investors have been rotating out of the winners of the stay-at-home pandemic economy and looking for potential winners of a recovering economy.

One area of the market that continues to climb is in the bond market. Treasury yields have been shooting higher, in part on expectations that the U.S. government is set to borrow a lot more money for stimulus programs. That has investors raising their expectations for economic growth and inflation, and the yield on the 10-year Treasury climbed to 1.12% from 1.09% late Friday. It was at just 0.89% at the end of 2020 after setting a record low during the year.

Higher long-term yields can put pressure on stock prices and make them look even more expensive. That’s because when bonds are paying investors more in interest to own them, they can pull buyers away from stocks. In general, higher interest rates make investors less willing to pay higher prices for stocks relative to their earnings.

Strategists at Morgan Stanley have been saying for months that bond yields may be set for a big rise, and they said in a report on Monday that stocks may have hit their peak for how much investors are willing to pay for each $1 of corporate earnings. That would put more pressure on companies to grow their earnings for their stock prices to rise further or even to hold steady.

Analysts expect strong profit growth to return for companies later this year as the economy recovers. But in upcoming weeks, when CEOs are scheduled to tell shareholders how much profit they made during the last three months of 2020, Wall Street expects to see a sharp drop. Analysts forecast S&P 500 companies to report a decline of nearly 9% in earnings per share from a year earlier, according to FactSet. If they’re right, it would be the third-worst drop since the summer of 2009.

In European stock markets, Germany’s DAX lost 1%, and France’s CAC 40 fell 0.9%. The FTSE 100 in London dropped 0.8%.

In Asian stock markets, South Korea’s Kospi slipped 0.1%, Hong Kong’s Hang Seng edged 0.1% higher and stocks in Shanghai fell 1.1%.

Japanese markets were closed for a national holiday. Adding to concerns over surging numbers of coronavirus infections in the world’s third-largest economy, another new variant of the virus was reported over the weekend among several people who had arrived from Brazil.