And back down goes Wall Street. After getting mauled most of the year, prices for all kinds of investments steadied in the summer and were heading back up. The recovery was so strong that some investors wondered if Wall Street’s “bear market” was coming to an end.
Now, such questions are getting more muted. On Monday, the main measure of the US stock market tumbled to its worst loss in two months. That followed its first losing week in the last five. It’s the latest reminder that the main constant for Wall Street this year has been volatility.
Here’s a look at what’s happening in financial markets, what’s driving it and what may lie ahead:
THE SUMMER HAS BEEN GOOD FOR WALL STREET?
Very. The US stock market roared upward by a little more than 17% between its bottom in the middle of June and last week, which is better than it does in many full years. The powerful run meant it recovered more than half its losses from earlier in the year. That’s when it dropped more than 20% from its peak to put the S&P 500 into what’s known as a “bear market.”
WAS IT JUST STOCKS RISING?
No. Prices also climbed for everything from bonds, which tend to attract more conservative and older investors, to cryptocurrencies, whose traders often welcome big risks.
WHAT DROVE THE RALLY?
Hope that the Federal Reserve may not raise interest rates as aggressively as feared in its battle against inflation.
The Fed has already raised short-term rates four times in 2022, after keeping them pinned at virtually zero for two years because of the pandemic. The fear on Wall Street has been that accelerating inflation would force the Fed to hike rates by market-shaking margins.
But investors saw signs that inflation may be near its peak. A highlight was a report earlier this month that showed a hefty drop in prices at the gasoline pump, some relief on airfares and better-than-expected numbers on consumer prices broadly.
That raised speculation the Fed could downshift the size of its increases sooner than expected and may not ultimately raise rates as far as earlier feared. That allowed markets to rally even though inflation is likely to stay high for a while.
WHY DO THE FED’S INTEREST RATES DICTATE SO MUCH?
They help set prices for almost everything on Wall Street.
When interest rates are high, new bonds coming from the U.S. government pay more in income. That makes investors less willing to pay high prices for investments with more risk of losing value, such as stocks or bitcoin. Higher rates also push down prices for older bonds already in the market, because they have lower yields in comparison.
In the meantime, higher rates slow the economy by making it generally more expensive to buy a house, car or anything else bought on credit. That’s why the Fed raises interest rates: It wants to restrain the buying that pushes upward on inflation. But if the Fed is too aggressive, it could choke off the economy and cause a recession.
WHY ARE STOCKS FALLING AGAIN?
Recent comments from the Fed are causing those hopes for less-aggressive rate hikes to fade.
Last week, the central bank released the minutes from its July policy meeting, which described how officials want to move rates high enough to slow the economy in its battle against inflation.
Later in the week, several officials gave speeches that investors saw as pushback on Wall Street’s hopes for a less aggressive Fed, including by speakers who aren’t usually biased toward raising rates sharply to control inflation.
Among others, economists at Deutsche Bank highlighted how Mary Daly, head of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, said it is “way too early to declare victory on inflation.”
AND WHAT’S HAPPENING OUTSIDE STOCKS?
Bond prices have dropped, and yields have climbed as investors dial back their hopes for a less-aggressive Fed.
The yield on the 10-year Treasury, which acts as a benchmark for many kinds of loans, has climbed back to 3%, for example. It was around 2.60% at the start of the month.
WHAT’S THE NEXT BIG DATE ON WALL STREET’S CALENDAR?
Friday. That’s when the chair of the Federal Reserve, Jerome Powell, is scheduled to give a speech at an annual economic symposium in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.
Jackson Hole has been the site of several market-moving speeches by Fed chairs in the past. Investors hope Powell will give more clues about the central bank’s next move with short-term interest rates.
SO, DID THE BEAR MARKET END?
No. For that to happen, the S&P 500 would need to rise at least 20% above its low and remain there through the end of a trading day. It hasn’t done that.
If and when that happens, what’s called the “bear market” would be over, and Wall Street will have moved on to its next “bull market.”
The last bull market for U.S. stocks began in March 2020 after the crash caused by the pandemic and lasted until early this January. The one before that barreled through more than a decade, from March 2009 to February 2020.
CAN STOCKS RISE AS MUCH AS THEY DID IN THE SUMMER AND NOT START A NEW BULL MARKET?
Yes. It’s routine for stocks to stage rallies, only to lose momentum again, while in the middle of deep downturns. Wall Street calls them “bear market rallies,” and some cautious investors with decades of experience had been warning to expect one since before this latest upturn began.
SO, IS THIS A NEW BULL OR THE OLD BEAR?
No one knows. A new bull market is something that people can identify only in hindsight.
On the encouraging side for stocks: Inflation has indeed eased a bit. That has some optimists calling for a “Goldilocks” outcome where the economy is strong enough to avoid a recession but not so strong that it pushes the Fed to aggressively raise rates.
But many challenges remain for Wall Street. Chief among them is that inflation has appeared to peak before, only for prices to accelerate and pull the rug out from underneath investors.
The U.S. economy has already contracted for two straight quarters The possibility of recession in the United States and around the world is still not off the table. And even if the worst of inflation is about to pass, central banks will still continue to raise interest rates.
Regardless of whether stocks are heading up or down in the long term, both sides seem to agree that markets will continue to be very shaky along the way.