Investors remain twitchy about falling oil prices
GLOBAL equity markets saw a brief respite from the sell-off late last week, but with investors still on edge because of sinking oil prices, the break did not last. U.S. stocks sold off Monday, with losses accelerating during afternoon trading. The Dow Jones industrial average fell 208 points, or 1.3 percent. The Standard & Poor's 500 stock-index and the tech-heavy Nasdaq were both down 1.6 percent. By the end of trading, oil slipped back below $30 a barrel for WTI crude, landing at $29.78, a 7.4 percent slide.
The domestic losses came after U.S. equities notched their first weekly gains of the year on Friday and after stocks rose on Monday in Asia and Europe, but just barely. Investment analysts say the selling may continue as worries linger over the pace of economic growth in China and the ability of the world's second-largest economy to drag the United States into a recession. Investors, nervous about the slide in oil prices with a glut in the global supply, are twitching at every shift in the oil market.
Even analysts who expect the U.S. economy to stay afloat with the help of robust jobs growth and lower prices at the gas pump say they are bracing for more market volatility. "This has all of the makings of a very typical, classic market correction," said David Berman, chief executive of Berman tral banks for reassurance. Last week, the People's Bank of China pumped more than $100 billion in short- and medium-term loans into its financial system. And a signal from European Central Bank President Mario Draghi calmed markets after a whiteknuckled Wednesday. He suggested that further support for the economy might be on its way at the ECB's March meeting. On Monday in Asia, markets closed essentially flat after a drop in oil prices snuffed out the relief rally that was spurred by last week's gains in U.S. markets and expectations that the Bank of Japan would announce more stimulus this week.
The benchmark Shanghai Composite Index closed up 0.8 percent and the Nikkei Stock Average in Japan rose 0.9 percent. In the United States, the East Coast was digging out from its historic snowstorm, which kept many workers home Monday. The New York Stock Exchange, which rarely closes for weather events, was open for business as usual.
Investors will be watching this week's meeting of the Federal Reserve, which concludes Wednesday. As concerns over market volatilty increase and sinking oil prices point to a potential slackening in global demand for fuel, investors will search for hints that the Fed will move carefully before agreeing to the next rate increase.
Markets are in search of stability after getting off to one of the worst starts in history. As of Friday afternoon, both the Dow and the S&P 500 were down 7 percent for the year. Analysts and financial advisers said they expect the selling to continue until investors are reassured that the domestic economy is strong enough to withstand the slowdown in China and other emerging market economies.
Investors are also looking for clarity on whether low oil prices will be a bonus for the U.S. economy or will lead to more instability. While lower oil prices are viewed as a boon for drivers saving on gas, the slide in crude also puts more pressure on energy companies to cut back production and lay off workers. Last week, Schlumberger, the largest oil field service provider in the world, said it was eliminating 10,000 jobs after suffering a $1 billion quarterly loss.
If oil prices level off, the shift could inspire optimism with consumers and investors alike, said Chris Hyzy, chief investment officer for the global wealth and investment management division of Bank of America. Those drivers who may have hesitated to spend their savings initially could start to splurge now that the low prices have persisted, he said. "All of the things the U.S. consumer is spending money on," Hyzy said, "it will become more visible by the end of the year."