Investor sentiment was back on fragility mode as focus again shifted to the economic damage the world was likely to suffer because of the pandemic, says Prakash Sakpal and Nicholas Mapa, economists at ING.
“Investors will continue to be monitoring developments on the COVID-19 front with a setback on clinical testing for a treatment to the virus. Meanwhile, the U.S. passed a fresh round of stimulus while oil prices continued to inch up slightly,” they said in a commentary.
On Wall Street, the S&P 500 flipped between gains and losses and ended the day down 0.1%. It’s a microcosm of the extreme swings that have gripped markets for months, as investors struggle to set prices for where corporate profits and the economy will be months from now.
The S&P 500 skidded by a third from its record in February until a month ago, and since then has roughly halved its losses on a series of tenuous hopes — of businesses reopening, of government aid to temper the economic pain and of possible treatments for COVID-19.
A report from the Financial Times on Thursday afternoon undercut that third hope. It said a potential antiviral drug flopped in a clinical trial, citing documents published accidentally by the World Health Organization.
However, study said the sample size was too small to draw scientifically valid conclusions and ended early. The Foster City, Calif.-based company behind the drug, Gilead Sciences, said the data represented “inappropriate characterizations” of the China study.
Gilead's shares flipped from a 3.3% gain to a 4.3% loss after the report. It also helped topple the market. The S&P 500 finished at 2,797.80, down 1.51 points. The Dow Jones Industrial Average rose 39.44 points, or 0.2%, to 23,515.26 after losing almost all of a 409-point gain. The Nasdaq composite slipped 0.63 points to 8,494.75.
“It should be expected — even as we are optimistic, and we see signs of progress in treatment, testing and vaccines — that there’s going to be some forward and some backsliding,” said Nela Richardson, investment strategist at Edward Jones.
She said investors are still encouraged by signs of progress in some places that are seeing fewer new patients and deaths. “The risk is that these fundamentals that we’re seeing now that are dastardly, just terrible and reflective of the economy really going into a sudden stop, last longer than what the markets currently anticipate,” she said. “That uncertainty will cause volatility, even if the overall trajectory in the market is positive.”
Among the dastardly numbers arriving Thursday: Preliminary data on manufacturing and services activity in Europe and the United States came in even weaker than economists expected, as did a report on sales of new U.S. homes. The headliner, though, was job losses. Another 4.4 million U.S. workers filed for unemployment benefits last week, raising the total over the last five weeks to 26 million, or roughly one in six U.S. workers.
Analysts said investors may have found some encouragement in a dip from the prior week's 5.2 million or were looking past the dismal data because they fully expected it. ”Numbers for the short term, when they’re reported, it’s almost like a sigh of relief that they aren’t higher,” said Scott Wren, senior global market strategist at Wells Fargo Investment Institute.
U.S. benchmark crude rose 68 cents to $17.18 a barrel. It rose 19.7% to settle at $16.50 a barrel. It has recovered after falling below $12 Monday, though it remains well below the roughly $60 level it started the year at. Brent crude, the international standard, rose 49 cents to $21.82 a barrel.
The dollar inched up to 107.64 Japanese yen from 107.50 yen Thursday. The euro inched down to $1.0768 from $1.0777.
AP Business Writers Stan Choe, Alex Veiga and Damian J. Troise contributed.