NEW YORK—Wall Street’s shuddering realization that inflation got worse last month, not better as hoped, sent markets reeling on Friday.
The S&P 500 sank 2.9 percent to lock in its ninth losing week in the last 10, and tumbling bond prices sent Treasury yields to their highest levels in years. The Dow Jones Industrial Average lost 2.7 percent, and the Nasdaq composite dropped 3.5 percent.
Wall Street came into Friday hoping a highly anticipated report would show the worst inflation in generations slowed a touch last month and passed its peak. Instead, the U.S. government said inflation accelerated to 8.6 percent in May from 8.3 percent a month before.
The Federal Reserve has already begun raising interest rates and making other moves in order to slow the economy, in hopes of forcing down inflation. Wall Street took Friday’s reading to mean the Fed’s foot will remain firmly on the brake for the economy, dashing hopes that it may ease up later this year.
“Inflation is hot, hot, hot,” said Brian Jacobsen, senior investment strategist at Allspring Global Investments. “Basically, everything was up."
The growing expectation is for the Fed to raise its key short-term interest rate by half a percentage point at each of its next three meetings, beginning next week. That third one in September had been up for debate among investors in recent weeks. Only once since 2000 has the Fed raised rates by that much, last month.
“No relief is in sight, but a lot can change between now and September,” Jacobsen said. "Nobody knows what the Fed will do in a few months including the Fed.”
The nation's high inflation, plus the expectations for an aggressive Fed, have sent the two-year Treasury yield to its highest level since 2008 and the S&P 500 down 18.7 percent from its record set in early January. The worst pain has hit high-growth technology stocks, cryptocurrencies, and other particularly big winners of the pandemic's earlier days. But the damage is broadening out as retailers and others are warning about upcoming profits.
The S&P 500 fell 116.96 points to 3,900.86. Combined with its losses from Thursday, when investors were rushing to lock in final trades before the inflation report, it was the worst two-day stretch for Wall Street’s benchmark in nearly two years.
The Dow lost 880.00 points to 31,392.79, and the Nasdaq tumbled 414.20 to 11,340.02.
Stock prices rise and fall on two things, essentially: how much cash a company produces and how much an investor is willing to pay for it. The Fed's moves on interest rates heavily influence that second part.
Since early in the pandemic, record-low interest rates engineered by the Fed and other central banks helped keep investment prices high. Now “easy mode” for investors is abruptly and forcefully getting switched off.
Not only that, too-aggressive rate hikes by the Fed could ultimately force the economy into a recession. Higher interest rates make borrowing more expensive, which drags on spending and investments by households and companies.
One of the fears among investors is that food and fuel costs may keep surging, regardless of how aggressively the Fed moves.
“The fact is that the Fed has very little ability to control food prices,” Rick Rieder, BlackRock’s chief investment officer of global fixed income said in a statement. He pointed instead to mismatches in supplies and demand, higher costs for energy and wages and the crisis in Ukraine, which is a major breadbasket for the world.
That raises the threat that central banks will overly tighten the brakes on the economy, as they push against a string “and essentially fall into a damaging policy mistake,” Rieder said.
The economy has already shown some mixed signals, and a report on Friday indicated consumer sentiment is worsening more than economists expected. Much of the souring in the University of Michigan's preliminary reading was due to higher gasoline prices.
That adds to several recent profit warnings from retailers indicating U.S. shoppers are slowing or at least changing their spending because of inflation. Such spending is the heart of the U.S. economy.
The two-year Treasury yield zoomed to 3.05 percent following the inflation report from 2.83 percent late Thursday, a big move for the bond market. During the day, it touched its highest level since George W. Bush's presidency, according to data from Tradeweb.
The 10-year yield was also up, but not quite as dramatically as the two-year yield, which is more influenced by expectations for Fed movements. The 10-year yield climbed to 3.15 percent from 3.04 percent and touched its highest level since 2018.
The narrowing gap between those two yields is a signal that investors in the bond market are more concerned about economic growth. Usually, the gap is wide, with 10-year yields higher because they require investors lock away their dollars for longer.
A two-year yield higher than the 10-year yield would be a signal to some investors that a recession may hit in a year or two.
“This market is to some degree in this no-man’s land, where you don’t have a really good definite signal that says get constructive and buy the market, but you don’t have solid information about a recession being more likely in order to get more defensive,” said Jason Pride, chief investment officer of private wealth at Glenmede.
Friday's losses were widespread for the S&P 500, with more than 90 percent of stocks in the index dropping.
Big Tech stocks were some of the the heaviest weights amid broad losses for the biggest winners of the prior ultralow-rate era. Microsoft fell 4.5 percent, Amazon dropped 5.6 percent, and Nvidia sank 6 percent.
Companies that depend on strong spending from consumers were also particularly weak following the reading on consumer sentiment. Caesars Entertainment fell 9.3 percent, and cruise operator Royal Caribbean dropped 7.3 percent.
Stocks fell in Europe for a second day after the European Central Bank said it would raise interest rates for the first time in more than a decade to combat inflation.